Seeing beyond Paris

Juneau resident enjoys hiking in French calanques, fjord-like inlets between vertical white cliffs stretching from Marseilles south to Cassis

Posted: Sunday, April 26, 2009

April in Paris! It's a song. It's a movie. It's a romance. It's so French! But this April, I am not in Paris. I am in the charming French port town of Cassis. The size of Sitka, it is located just south of Marseilles on the Mediterranean Sea. Lucky for me, I am here to visit my husband, who is in a residency fellowship at a local foundation established for artists and scholars.

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Courtesy Of Carol Prentice
Courtesy Of Carol Prentice

When I first arrived, someone asked me if Cassis, with the combination of mountains (or in this case cliffs) and ocean, reminded me of Juneau.

"Hmm ... let me think about that," I said.

An image of Juneau I left behind on April Fools' Day - with a 5-foot berm at the end of my driveway and not a bloom to be found - formed in my mind. Then, I looked out at the stone houses with their terracotta clay roofs and shutters of sea foam green, lavender and blue. I glanced at the small city park overflowing with tulips, irises and wisteria.

"Not so much," I replied.

Every morning, I walk out my apartment door, coffee in hand, and pass through the foundation's library onto a large second story terrace to take in the view. Cap Canaille (Scoundrel's Bluff), the highest maritime cliff in Europe, was to my left, and the Mediterranean Sea fills the rest of the frame. I watch the local fishermen leave port to return with sea urchins, a local delicacy, to sell from the dock.

On Wednesdays and Fridays, my husband and I grab our cloth bags and walk the half-mile to town to the open-air market. I want it all - raspberries, strawberries, lavender honey and goat cheese. I add a bouquet of yellow freesia. We find a bench in the sun and open the container of raspberries. Could anything taste better?

I've been to France before, so I know just a bit about French dress. I know to pack black slacks, black walking shoes, a black jacket and a couple of scarves. This way, I am prepared for anything.

So, when my husband e-mailed me one day, instructing me to bring a pair of sturdy hiking shoes with, most importantly, good traction, I was a bit confused.

"It's for hiking the calanques," he informed me.

I hauled out the guidebooks and discovered that "les calanques" are a series of "fjord-like inlets lying between vertical white cliffs" that stretch from Marseilles south to Cassis. I made room among my dark and neutral wardrobe for hiking shoes, sunscreen, a water bottle and shorts.

On "Easter Monday," a national holiday in France, we set out with some French friends to hike the first three calanques. The trailhead is a short 30-minute walk from our apartment, and soon I was surrounded by terrain unlike any I have ever experienced, climbing up and down slick limestone, hiking alongside rosemary and sage bushes. After the final rigorous 45-minute scramble, we reached our destination of Port d'en Vau, from which we looked straight down 1,000 feet to the clear green water of the inlet or calanque below.

"Wow! That's something!" I exclaimed, giddy with the relief of having made it to the top. After a pleasant lunch of soft cheese, made softer by the sun, slathered on a baguette, I found a bit of shade and took in my surroundings.

For the next two hours, I did some serious people-watching. I watched scores of hikers pass by. The familiar "R.E.I." look that I associate with outdoor adventure was the exception that afternoon in the French Calanques. I heard bits of German and Italian, no English, and a lot of French. I saw young women in stylish flats walking arm in arm, as if strolling in the Luxembourg Gardens. Many seniors with walking sticks crested the hilltop, wearing street clothes and carrying knapsacks, as if they were walking to the grocery store. Parents with babies in backpacks spread picnic blankets and three-generation families set out for an even more rigorous return route.

From the comfort of my small bit of shade, I marveled at this country where a good wine and a good walk are both appreciated. Along with olives and good cheese, the calanques are one more reason to love France.

• Carol Prentice has a regular Neighbors column, Caught in the Middle, which appears on second Sundays.

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