An unmissable experience off the coast of Marseille
Cut to 600 BC. Greek settlers from Phocaea step onto newly discovered shores, founding France’s oldest city and centuries of maritime activity. ‘Massalia’ goes on to attract a whopping 18,000 merchant ships each year.
Cut to today. A stunning U-shaped promenade, a pretty marina with yachts, sailboats, speedboats, fishing boats, and a terminal for tourist boat excursions. A nautical vision in blue and white surrounded by elegant, lemon and sand-colored mansions and rows of cafes. To the left, a gentle hill, crowned by a magnificent basilica and up ahead, two sprawling forts at the gaping mouth of the bay, which opens up into the vast sea. Massalia morphs into Marseille. Have you added the most unique city of Southern France to your itinerary?
Marseille demands at least three days of your trip, if not more. The first experience that I recommend is exploring the Calanques National Park, Europe’s first land-based, aquatic and peri-urban park. If driving/hiking is not your preference, then queue up for a cruise…there’s one every afternoon.
Grab an authentic Moroccan meal as you wait…its even more popular than crepes. Consider La Kabena, a popular Moroccan restaurant on the port. Admire the Tunisian decor till your authentically aromatic couscous is delivered to your table. Since 1976, this eatery has been a favourite for a medley of nationalities who have only one thing in common…the love of exotic food! Join the gang and dig in.
The Calanques cruise takes you along a 20km stretch of high, rocky limestone cliffs over a four-hour trip. So when you’re aboard by 2.30, hurry to choose a good spot in the sun. Like us, maybe you will settle for the side helm, if its too hot to be on the open deck and too dull inside. Did you notice how the boat skims across the harbour, and within minutes you are in the open seas? Or were you staring transfixed at the colour of the water, that royal blue, so sharp, so intense, so Mediterranean? Memories of Greece?
In the deeper seas, you may have the urge to be as close to the blue as possible. Like me, will you choose the floor, sitting with your back against the wall, knees bent so that your feet rest on side railing in front? You will have to make way for people walking past, but you won’t want to budge from that perfect vantage point. Gaze at the waters, sometimes shutting out the intense blue just to feel the wind and the water sprays on your face. Your hair will be all tangled up with the wind…wild and dishevelled…but that won’t matter. The glorious, sunny day and the unbelievable blue of the sea will captivate all your senses. Record every millisecond in your mind forever.
The first encounter with the Calanques hits you about 2 miles into the sea. So like the the majestic Fjords, but so unlike them too, the Calanques (from Corsican ‘calanca’ meaning ‘creek’ or ‘inlet’) have been formed by rivers running through fault lines in the mountains. Words escape you. That stunning coastline of white limestone rock cliffs and the utter rawness of nature leaves you staring in silence.
The boat slows down and closer to the coves, the water changes to a brilliant green, so transparent, you can spot weeds and rocks under the surface. The pristine white rocky walls offsets the crystal clear turquoise waters perfectly. This is home to 140 land species and 60 aquatic species. No wonder the Calanques is a such a precious retreat for the locals and ranks as one of the most touted sights in the country with 1.3 million tourists annually!
Gaze wondrously at the coves of pale sandy beaches in between the cliffs filled with swimmers, sunbathers, picnickers and hikers. Try capturing the changing hues of the water in your cameras, but which picture can do justice? This is a nature lover’s paradise… flora and fauna on the seemingly barren rocks and the pine trees. Slowly, as you glide past underground caves, some over 20,000 yrs old, remind yourself that these are home to prehistoric cave art. Colourful fishing villages and villas nestle into peaceful creeks, tiny islands, squealing seabirds dive into the azure waters, the rays of the afternoon sun gleam on the surface of the water like precious jewels. ‘Gorgeous’ is an understatement.
Feel your senses heightening in this haven of calm…time seems to stand still. Wonder about the Calanques that have a strange slant to them, as if over millions of years, they had been slipping into the sea. What if some fast-track video could record the slow sliding action! Before you realise it, you are near Cassis, and the last of the Calanques, the one in red stone, from where the boat turns back.
So far out in the sea, the waves get rough, choppy, high…and on both sides, the brilliant blue continues to hypnotise. A magnetic force draws you to the front helm of the boat in the greed for an even more magnificent view. You throw caution to the winds…and to the captain’s cautionary announcement about high waves (blah, blah, blah). Holding onto the railings, the seat and your camera, you persist…enjoying the sudden sprinkles until they turned into splashes, drenching you completely. The boat rides dangerously on the crashing waves. Thrill no more. Enough adventure on high seas. Putting all your balancing skills into play, retreat into the warm safety inside, averting possible disaster.
Later, ensconced in the warmth of the underground cabin, as you stroke your matted hair into some semblance of order, reflect on the risk-ridden experience that could have taken a nasty turn. And nearer the harbour, marvel at the contrast, the rough sea now gently rocks the boat, like a lullaby, a tranquility, a peace, soothing ruffled nerves. Nature…so wild, so wonderful, so wilful.
Back on the port, in the late evening, stroll the promenade leisurely, relishing a takeaway sandwich meal, soaking in the night scene, watching the twinkling night lights and the hundreds of docked sailboats with their tall upright masts. Gone are the tourists and the buzz of activity around the stalls. Shopkeepers have folded up their stalls and carried away their goods. The water is pitch dark, a million lights are dancing lightly on the surface. In the darkness, the city is resting. Waterfront cafes are overflowing with the light chatter of diners. From the hill above, the gold-leafed statue of the Notre Dame shines in the darkness, watching over the city below. Eternity is an emotion and its here, now.
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