Cassis: a timeless port in Provence

By | Category: Travel destinations
the port of Cassis

the port of Cassis

Unlike too many small fishing ports of the Mediterranean French coast Cassis has kept its soul. No mass tourism, no invading urbanism on the hills surrounding the port, Cassis has succeeded in resisting the property developers. Cassis is only a few miles away from Marseille but you will feel you are much further from this big city while being able to directly get there from London using the newly open direct Eurostar line. Only seven hours after leaving London-Saint Pancras International you’ll set foot in the Saint-Charles railway station of Marseille, hire a car and get to Cassis in between 30 to 45 minutes later. Unpack your suitcase, you will have found the right place to create long-lasting memories!

Cassis, a postcard Provencal port

Even if you’re not aware of it you might already be familiar with this small port. With their paintings famous painters such as Paul Signac, Georges Braque, André Derain, Maurice Vlaminck and Francis Picabia have popularised views of the village, the port and Cap Canaille the high cliff overlooking them. Do as they did and fall under the spell of Cassis.

everyone walks

everyone walks

Everybody walks in Cassis so don’t bother driving in its narrow streets; leave your car in one of the many car parks surrounding the village as it will take you only five minutes to get to the port by foot from any of them. Nestled at the bottom end of a deep cove the pedestrian banks of the harbour liven up when the “pointus”, the local small fishing boats, come back with the daily catch: sea urchins, small squids called supions, breams, red mullets, conger eels, anglerfishes and rockfishes used to cook the famous bouillabaisse.

The best way to taste this fresh produce is to have lunch or dinner in one of the restaurants set in the narrow cobbled streets of the village. For instance at “La Poissonnerie” a real fishmonger’s shop since 1850 where you can still buy fresh fish, you can also seat at one of their tables and try one of their speciality: squid with garlic, fish tartar, fish soup… Simple and tasty family recipes!

the special: soft boiled aggs at Angelina's

the special: soft boiled aggs at Angelina’s

A young and passionate chef, Jean Marchal created “Angelina” two years ago. The restaurant’s rooms surround an old olive tree and the open kitchen where you can watch the chef making your meal. His inventiveness seems to be endlessly mixing Provencal food with unexpected flavours. His soft-boiled eggs cooked with all kinds of mushrooms, herbs, spices or even poutargue, a luxury condiment made with dried mullet’s eggs, are a must and his regular clients always ask for them knowing that a new ingredient will surprise them every time! His shoulder of lamb confit, braised veal knuckle, whole roasted bream, grilled hake “à la plancha” also are inescapable. Jean Marchal may be discreet and not very talkative but he wonderfully expresses himself with his cooking.

Of course there are many other good restaurants such as A Tablewhere you’ll find a menu made from only the produce from the daily market but at amazingingly good value for money or Chez Gilbertone of the few restaurants members of the “Charte de la Bouillabaise Marseillaise” that cook a real bouillabaisse according to specific rules with at least 6 different fish species. And it has a beautiful view over the port and Cap Canaille!

Majestic nature in the Calanques National Park

Calanques de Cassis

Calanques de Cassis

Seen from the air Cassis looks like a safe haven set in between two mountainous massifs, the Calanques and Cap Canaille. The Calanques are like small Norwegian fjords cut into the mountains stretching from Marseille to Cassis. The 14 calanques are a paradise for divers, hikers and rock climbers. The first calanque called Calanque de Port Miou is an easy 30 minute walk from Cassis allowing you to discover the dry and arid nature of this area whilst listening to the song of the cicadas. The remaining 12 miles of well-marked track are much more demanding and you’ll need some training to go from Cassis to Marseille. But it’s worth the effort; the high white cliffs diving into the clear blue sea, small sandy creeks waiting for you to go for a swim and rich flora and fauna will reward you for your efforts.

There are many boats leaving from Cassis to discover the Calanques in a much easier and less tiring way. Get a ticket at the booth located at the port for one of the excursions offered and you can visit three, five or eight Calanques during 45 to 90 minutes and you will sail along the white limestone cliffs that were used as quarries in ancient times to build Mediterranean ports such as Alexandria, Algiers, Piraeus or Marseille.

Cape Canaille

Cape Canaille

The local diving centre is 40 years old now and you can trust the professional instructors to safely take you to wonderful diving spots: underwater cliffs, 40 metre high sloping reefs, extraordinary coral caves, many wrecks, countless fish, sponges, sea anemones, the list goes on… Diving in this natural park can easily compete with faraway tropical diving journeys!

Opposite the Calanques the highest cliffs of Europe raise from the sea: the Cap Canaille and the Grande Tête are 399 metres above sea level at the highest point! At sunset the ochre rocks shimmer with colours of gold and red, startlingly contrasting with the blue of the sea. It’s a paradise for rocks climbers! By foot or by car you can go from Cassis up to Cap Canaille: the “Route des Cretes”, the crest road, will allow you to get spectacular views over Cassis, the Calanques and the islands off the coast of Marseille.

Wine, a 2 600 years old tradition

In about 600 B.C. the Greeks were the very first to grow vineyards in the area and, after a long period of neglect, it’s been a successful business again since the 17th century. Being the only French vineyards growing in a national park renders these vineyards quite remarkable. The twelve wine growers who take care of them resisted the siren song of the property developers who dreamed of building dozens of houses on the hills overlooking Cassis and the Mediterranean Sea. Together they have preserved the beauty of the vineyards which are cultivated in terraces. Thanks to a favourable microclimate with little rain but providing 3,000 hours of sunshine a year they make quality wines, the rule being to make only one bottle of wine for each vine.

 À Table where you can sample many of the local wines

À Table where you can sample many of the local wines

To discover these fruity yet elegant wines with a hint of iodine brought by the sea winds you can meet the wine makers in their wineries or have a sip or two of white, red or rosé in one of the wine bars of Cassis. Whether at Le Chai Cassidain, Le Divino or La Maison des Vins you will get a friendly welcome and good advice to be able to make your choice from the wide range of Cassis wines. Thus you will not only buy a bottle of wine but also its story and the story of the men who worked hard to create it. Knowing all this will surely make a difference when you’ll drink it!

Jazzy summer nights in Cassis

During the Festival sur le toit”, the Festival on a Rooftop, which runs from July the 12th till August the 16th Jazz Bands will perform on the roof of the tourist office located on the far end bank of the port. Whether close to the musicians sitting on the rooftop or having a drink on one of the café terraces of the port you will be able to enjoy different jazz styles: Gypsy jazz for Django Reinhardt fans, jazz vocal ensembles, Be Bop, Boogie, Swing…

And to bring the summer festivities to a spectacular close there will be jazz music played everywhere in Cassis on the 3rd weekend of August. Musicians will perform in the port, on the village’s squares and Michel Legrand, the French composer known for making film scores such as ‘The Thomas Crown Affair”, “The Servant”, “The Summer of’ 42” and “Yentl”… will give a concert of his best loved songs.

Is it any wonder that those in the know come back to Cassis year after year.

 

For more information about Cassis, click here.

Text © Annick Dournes

Photos © Frederic de Poligny

 

 

 

 

 

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