Today I set out with the ambition of hiking from Cassis to Marseille to see every calanque. I found that the train in Cassis really is far from Cassis and that you wear out just trying to find where to start. I also found out that three liters of water was gone in a few hours. Physically, I felt fine, but the heat was making me see things. I had to make an executive decision after being let down by the fourth and fifth calanques that hiking the whole way was not worth the difficulty. I ended up turning back. However, if you are a hiker looking to do this in the future, I’d say:
1. Make sure you have plenty of time in case you need to take a few days.
2. Bring a hell of a lot more water than you want to; it’s really not that heavy and you’ll drink it quickly without any freshwater sources on the way.
3. There is a hostel in the middle of nowhere with no amenities, but I wonder if you’re better off just camping on the beach and not paying for a roof.
4. The first three calanques are really the only pretty ones.
5. Go early. The calanques open at 6AM and you can swim. There are less people and, in the middle of the day, they shut down swimming and even entering certain areas.
The following is my day, written as the first draft to my weekly column in The Athenian:
While studying abroad in Arles, France for a term, I decided to ditch my host family for a whole day to do some hiking. I invited some friends to come with me, suggesting we could hike from Cassis to Marseille on the trails in “Les Calanques”. The trails are a good 20km in total and wind through valleys and rocky inlets along the Mediterranean Sea. These inlets are in fact “Les Calanques” themselves, attracting many tourists every summer. My friends of course jumped up at the idea of going to Cassis and agreed to tag along – and stay in Cassis. They preferred instead to lie around on the touristy beach and not take the effort to pop over the first hill to Port Miou. Not only that, but I told them I was taking the 5:46AM train so they opted for the 6:04AM, calling it a “mental thing” and completely missing me at our connection in Marseille and during the entire trip. So I did the first thing the park recommends you avoid doing: I went alone.
Les Calanques are beautiful inlets full of bright blue water, fish, and loads of saline algae which contribute to the color. Each one out of the dozens that exist has its own personality. Tourists rarely wander past the first three, Port Miou, Port Pin, and Calanque d’En-Vau because they are easy to get to and clearly the most beautiful. I can’t decide if the easy trails were because they have been so worn down from tourists, because there was such a demand to see the first three calanques and thus easy trails were installed, or if it was some kind of combination of the two. However, all visitations are thoroughly restricted beyond the third calanque depending on daily fire hazard predictions. Even the first three calanques don’t permit swimming during certain hours. It’s almost like the French are pissed that they can’t control all access points enough to make money from the calanques, so they just fine you to hell and back if they catch you sneaking in. But they didn’t catch me.
I arrived in Cassis in the early morning by train. I had read that the station was out of the way, but I didn’t realize it meant walking a brisk several miles to get to the port in Cassis. I was tempted to stick my thumb out for a ride when I finally saw the center of the city come into view. Cassis reminds me of Monte Carlo in that it’s a bunch of fancy places with steep drives and pretty flowers…and tourists…the end. I saw the Cassis beach my friends had been raving about last week, but it was nearly empty and completely dull at 8AM. I continued up in hillside until I found the entrance to the calanques and thus began my journey.
The trails are gravelly and wide, for the most part. The hiking skill needed for Port Mioux is a joke and swimming in it is not a good option considering it is in fact a very active port. I took some photos and disappeared quickly for the next calanque, Port au Pin. This one took longer to get to, but the trails were so easy that elderly people could hike them at ease. I turned a corner and saw the classic teal waters in front of me. It was still very early but it was already hot, so I willingly jumped into the cool water and swam a few laps before continuing. Not many tourists were up yet, so it was peaceful. Getting to the third calanque, Calanque d’En Vau, was still as easy as the others, but only if you come for a view from the cliff. I chose to actually swim in the waters, searching my map for the fastest way down. That’s another thing: if you ever go to Les Calanques, just buy a map. No good ones are free and you’ll be lost if you don’t. But you’ll still be lost if you. And the little “unofficial” trails on the maps that mark the “shortcuts”… well those have got to be jokes. I found myself scaling the vertical face of a boulder, suspended without equipment hundreds of feet above what looked like the Mojave Desert below me. It took me splitting my leg open to pull myself out of the situation and realize that shortcuts are only short if you cliff-dive. I found the trail I needed and followed a line of people down what appeared to be a landslide of ill-placed gravel.
At last, the third beach. It looked a lot nicer than it is. The beach was nothing but rocks, the water was full of minnows that tickle your legs when you swim, and there are throngs of people jumping into the water or pushing off in kayaks every which way you look. I left the beach quickly and took off for the next calanques. A military helicopter appeared to be pursuing me as a literally ran through the trails to the fourth and fifth inlets. After getting lost a few times and wandering several kilometers too far, I found the fourth and fifth calanques and had decided they were, well, ugly. It was going to be this the whole way to Marseille? It was still early, but I had a good dozen kilometers to go. I looked down at my bleeding leg, the dwindling three liters of water in my bag, and the barren desert around me. There wasn’t even a hiker in sight. No boats offshore. Even the helicopters gave up. My pace was faster than I had expected, but I had gotten too easily lost along the way and deterred by the lack of impressive scenery. I decided that there is a reason why people only see the first three calanques and so I turned back.
Feeling resentful for having quit, I figuratively flicked France off and hopped on a train to Marseille without paying. I did the same thing for my last train home to Arles and France returned the favor by shutting the whole SNCF system down due to a fatal train accident in Paris. Alas, in one day I had managed to become stranded half a day in French nowhere and stranded three hours on a French train. The worst part? None of my grimy selfies from the day were of Facebook profile picture quality….Ugh! Day killer right there.
Swimming in Port-Pin.
One of several rock piles (like inutuks) that I found.
Vast nothingness – like the Mojave.
Me hiking to the fourth calanque.
My reaction to the hill in front of me. You can see it winds wayyy up and the rocks roll as you walk on them.
A view of where I swam second from above (Calanque d’En-Vau).
A view of where I swam first from above (Port-Pin).