Cassis is a lovely town next to La Ciotat and about 20 minutes south of Marseille. Everyone at school always raved about it but, despite being so close, it’s not so easy to get to without a car.
Months passed and I didn’t think I would get to visit until one of my students offered to take me and my other coworker hiking with his family. We piled into the car around 11 am and headed for the calanques, natural cliff-like inlets along the water that stretch for miles.
Hiking the calanques isn’t exactly easy. It’s rocky, yet slippery, and there’s really nothing stopping you from tumbling off the edge. I didn’t exactly fear for my life, but I was painfully aware of my mortality. However, those views . . .
It takes about an hour of hiking to reach the end of the main inlet. There are boat tours you can take from the marina downtown for around 17 euros, but visiting the national park is absolutely free.
We started down the paths and up the calanques, my student’s grandparents in tow. If they could do it, I could do it, I told myself as I scaled slick rock staircases. They were wonderfully sweet, with strong southern accents and professional hiking sticks. His grandfather was one of the chattiest French people I have ever met. He was full of stories, stories of childhood adventures, about seemingly mundane depressions in the cliff face that were actually from WWII, of blocked off industrial tunnels, or even stories about the trees. He would point to anything and there would be story behind it.
When I told him I was a writer, he jokingly asked if I was going to write about him.
Don’t ever ask that, or we will.
That day I also learned that the French really know how to picnic.
First came the tapenade (a famous southern spread usually made from olives), then the quiche, then slices of homemade pizza topped with sardines. Of course they couldn’t forget the apéritif (a usually orange liqueur that you drink before you eat to get the hunger going) and some Italian wine. There were also egg sandwiches and fresh chickpeas. For dessert there was a fluffy lemon cake, sugar cookies, a blueberry pie, and chocolate.
I kept accepting everything I was offered. Another quiche? Why not? More pizza? Sure! Have you had these cookies? No, what are those?
We set up camp in a spot that was once a lookout for German troops during the war (story curtesy of Grandpa Michel). Over the cliff, the Mediterranean sparkled. There was a large round slab where a cannon used to be, but now it was our table. Chilled wind ruffled the trees. Hundreds of feet below, boats sailed by on choppy water. Under the sun, surrounded by dazzling nature, and full of food, it was hard not to feel content.
On the way back we walked down the calanques, dipping our toes in the cold water along the small beach at the bottom of the inlet, and then hiking all the way back up.
We parted ways, saying au revoir to the grandparents and heading into town. Downtown Cassis is a bit smaller than La Ciotat, but everything is centrally located. There’s a few relatively sandy beaches, a short, but bustling, boardwalk, and even a lighthouse. The sea is a clearer blue than the sky.
We stopped by a tabac (the French equivalent of a convenience store) so I could load up on postcards and possibly a new magnet for my growing collection. (I used to think magnets were a tacky tourist trap, but I bought one in Budapest and now I can never go back.)
I was waiting in line to buy my postcards when my student tapped my shoulder. He showed me a text message on his phone from another one of my students. “What is this word? Nudes? What does that mean?”
I didn’t know what to say, so I just started laughing. No one during orientation went over what to do when your students harmlessly ask you loaded questions. But if not from me, he was going to find out sooner than probably later. So I told him.
He was mortified and immediately went “of me?!”
I certainly don’t get paid enough to teach horny teenagers.
We took the scenic route back, driving up a winding road up the mountain called Route de Crêtes. Standing on the edge of the world makes walking the calanques seem like child’s play.
Just when I think I’ve seen France, it always finds a way to impress me all over again.
While much like La Ciotat, Cassis offers more in terms of touristic things to do. You can get ice cream, or sugary crêpes, and pop into the many cute little shops along the water. The beach lies nestled under the shadow of a cliff. The Castle of Cassis, now a hotel, keeps watch over the town. If you venture past the crowded marina, the tight streets become the perfect maze to get lost in. At the end of the boardwalk, waves crash against the lighthouse and you can see the hazy blue shadows of the calanques on the horizon. My time in small town Cassis was one of the best days I’ve ever had in France.
Next time: London
I’m finally heading to the land of the Brits! I’ll be seeing the sights, perusing the museums, drinking all the tea, and fulfilling a nerd dream by seeing David Tennant onstage.
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