Before moving to Provence, I had never heard of the calanques. They are a secret little bit of paradise, tucked away on the Mediterranean coast between Marseille and Cassis.
This 12 mile stretch of twenty secluded inlets, where the water is a crystalline turquoise blue, was formed 12,000 years ago, when the icecaps melted and the sea rose to flood the coastal river valleys. It is a region so beautiful that it deserves to be - and has been - protected from the mass tourism which has all but submerged the nearby French Riviera.
In 1975 the calanques were classified as a “picturesque site” which could not be built up, or changed in any way, ever. As a result, there are many things you will not find here: no beach-side hotels or nightclubs, no souvenir stands or ice-cream wagons, no public toilets or even drinking fountains. Just bright sun, dazzling white limestone, endless blue sky and the crystal clear sea.
If that does not have you reaching for the package holiday brochures, then you are probably the kind of person who would enjoy hiking through the calanques. It is one of the best ways to discover their splendour. Put on a pair of solid walking shoes, pack a picnic and plenty of drinking water, and set off on one of the marked trails which link them together.
Once you have marvelled at them from the rocks above, climb down and swim, snorkel, or scuba dive in their transparent waters. This time of year the water has usually warmed to invigorating, rather than heart stopping temperatures. Or you can tour them by boat or kayak. Whichever way you explore the calanques - by land or sea - they are a unique discovery to make.
No two of the twenty are alike; each has its own distinctive personality. En Vau, long, narrow rectangle carved into the sheer cliffs surrounding it, with a sandy beach at its end, is the most spectacular, but also the most crowded, because it is so close to the port of Cassis. Port Pin is the shadiest, with a fringe of pines miraculously growing out of the rock, and Podestat is just a small, discreet finger of deep blue sea reaching inland.
Sormiou, the widest calanque, and Morgiou, the most photogenic, are both fishing villages which can be reached by car, except in July and August, when the fire road is closed for everyone except residents. Then there is a shuttle service which operates at slightly random times between the public parking lot and the sea.
Most of the calanques are uninhabited and still look as they did ten thousand years ago. Some of them are so tucked away that you have to be prepared for a hot hike over rough, rocky terrain before you can plunge into their cool depths.
Others do not make you work so hard to find them. Sugiton, a favorite family outing, is an easy one hour stroll from the Luminy campus of the University of Marseille, along a wide path which is even paved part of the way. You meet grandmothers and babies in strollers en route and at the end are rewarded with a choice of several diminutive beaches. Right next door is a calanque that everyone takes the time to look at : les Pierres Tombées. Its sandy shore is reserved for sun worshippers who want an all-over tan.
Marseilleveyre, is just a pleasant walk away from where you park your car, has the added attraction of a seaside restaurant. Its owners will whip up a meal for whoever turns up, no matter when. They have no running water, and have to bring everything in by boat, but somehow, they do it.
For more information on the calanques, and help in exploring them, by land or sea, contact the Tourist Office of Marseille: Tel: 04 91 13 89 00/Fax: 04 91 13 89 20.