There are few places in the world that can compete in my heart with the sheer beauty of the Calanques. A jewel of the South of France, the Calanques de Marseilles are a coastal massif extending from the second-largest French city towards the east for some twenty kilometers as the crow flies. Carved out of limestone, they are a typically Mediterranean type of long rocky coves forming a series of steep and narrow inlets, making for an intricately chiseled shoreline.

White stone cliffs plunge straight into pristine turquoise water and each calanque shelters an idyllic and secluded beach at its core, although at the height of summer many boats come and drop anchor making for a rather crowded space. A national park was established some ten years ago and features many hiking trails, some short and easily accessible, others more arduous and lengthy. All usually involve steep climbs and descents to reach the water from the top of the cliffs.

Calanque de Port Pin

When I was thirteen or fourteen years old, the topic of my approaching military service—still mandatory in France at the time—came up once in a while, along with the option to enlist before call-up, devancer l’appel, which allowed one to choose which branch they would serve in. The mighty Chasseurs Alpins, French mountain division of the army, had been promoted by my dad and I must have expressed enough interest that my parents decided to hook me up with the prestigious Club Alpin Français, or CAF, most revered civilian climbing association of that era.

I was under the minimum admission age but was granted an exception on the basis of initial parental attendance. It was my dad who came along the first time, and our destination was the Calanques. He would not climb, simply tag along, but I was roped in to an experienced climber and dutifully performed my first ascent over the shimmering Mediterranean Sea.

High on a bleached limestone wall, I discovered new knots: the mighty bowline, handy clove hitch and magical Prusik. I mentally recorded the heartwarming sound of a carabiner click and the respectful ritual of coiling a rope, for later replay. I avidly began assimilating the importance of watchful belaying and the sacred art of placing protections. I experienced the exhilaration of the bouncing descent of a rappel—and the rope burn that would reward one’s enthusiasm. The mistral—a cold and dry northwesterly wind typically associated with clear weather—was blowing and even more than the ascent, I remember some bonding time with my fatherly escort as we hunkered down between boulders afterwards to have our lunch, both underdressed and shivering, likely eating saucisson and sucking on a condensed milk tube. It was our last such adventure together, as I must have passed the test and was accepted on my own on subsequent outings.

Although shy and introverted, I was irremediably hooked by the grace and mighty power climbers exhibited in the vertical dimension, and because responsibility was—almost equally—split between both ends of the rope, I took a first hesitant step into adulthood. It was the ignition of my first true passion.

Strangely enough, my three most passionate endeavors in life have been set in three of the four fundamental elements, earth, water and air: climbing in the mountains, diving in the ocean, and flying through open skies. To this day, those are symbolized in the VMP logo at the top-left of this page which not only draws my initials but also simultaneously represents an ocean wave, mountains and a bird in flight. Fire eluded me, but my dear sister came very close to becoming a fire-fighter. We would have been quite the quadrilogy.

So as one can imagine, revisiting the Calanques after such a long time meant a lot more than just sightseeing in a pretty place and coming home to write “Ugh. It was, like, super coooool?”

After reviewing our options on this trip, I had decided to take it easy and skip the long approach walks into the westerly Calanques, and opted for an arrival from the adorable seaside town of Cassis to the east of the massif. From there, we could park and reach three separate Calanques via a reasonable four- or five-mile walk.

After I had gone out early to get croissants and taken the time to briefly explore the old Saint-Maximin, we drove south towards the coast and at some point along the way, just before the town of Aubagne, spotted Pagnol’s mighty Garlaban to our right—a bare hiccup in the grand scenery laid before us, but the peak had ruled his childhood and none other stood taller in the relatively limited universe a late nineteenth century walking radius would have provided, not even his dear Taoumé.

Je suis né dans la ville d’Aubagne, sous le Garlaban couronné de chèvres, au temps des derniers chevriers.

Garlaban, c’est une énorme tour de roches bleues, plantée au bord du Plan de l’Aigle, cet immense plateau rocheux qui domine la verte vallée de l’Huveaune.

La tour est un peu plus large que haute : mais comme elle sort du rocher à six cents mètres d’altitude, elle monte très haut dans le ciel de Provence, et parfois un nuage blanc du mois de juillet vient s’y reposer un moment.

Ce n’est donc pas une montagne, mais ce n’est plus une colline: c’est Garlaban, où les guetteurs de Marius, quand ils virent, au fond de la nuit, briller un feu sur Sainte-Victoire, allumèrent un bûcher de broussailles : cet oiseau rouge, dans la nuit de juin, vola de colline en colline, et se posant enfin sur la roche du Capitole, apprit à Rome que ses légions des Gaules venaient d’égorger, dans la plaine d’Aix, les cent mille barbares de Teutobochus.

I was born in the town of Aubagne, beneath the goat-crowned Garlaban, in the days of the last goat-herds.

Garlaban is a huge tower of blue rock, standing on the edge of the Plan de l’Aigle, the Eagle Plateau, an immense, rocky table-land which dominates the green valley of the Huveaune.

The Tower is slightly broader than it is tall; but as it rises from the rock at some two thousand feet, it rears up high into the sky of Provence, and, at times, a white July cloud comes and rests on it for a moment.

Thus it is not a mountain, but it is more than a hill: it is Garlaban, where Marius’s look-out-men, on seeing in the dead of night a glow of fire on Sainte-Victoire, lit a bonfire of brushwood: the red bird, flitting from hill to hill through the June night, alighted at last on the rock of the Capitol, bringing Rome the news that her legions in Gaul had slaughtered Teutobochus’ hundred thousand barbarians in the plain of Aix.

Marcel Pagnol, La gloire de mon père
English translation by Rita Barisse

Looking all of this up on Google Maps to fact-check myself as I write this—I always do—I have to smile at the sight of the Grotte du Grosibou as a point of interest on a 2024 map.

Having made Marie a little car-sick in the tight up-and-down curves of the outer Cassis and succumbed to a brief incursion onto a one-way street, I managed to find meter parking in a quaint residential neighborhood a few minutes away from the Calanque de Port-Miou where our trail began.

The bottom of that calanque is home to a small marina harboring mostly sailboats. They are packed tightly along docks on each side and the inlet is so narrow that there is barely enough room to maneuver. The sun was shining confidently at last, the water at our feet was a complex aquarelle of green tones, a light breeze and timid chop made halyards ring softly as they nudged their mast and the sea in the distance shone with blinding sparks.

Calanque de Port-Miou

Our trail followed the water as long as there were boats, then started to climb at an angle and steepened gradually. Stones on the path were finely polished to the point of being slippery in spots, testament to the passage of time and the hundreds of thousands of feet that have hiked there throughout the ages. Eventually reaching the top of that ridge, we were offered magnificent views of the coast to the northeast—Falaises de Cassis and Cap Canaille—and caught a glimpse of the next calanque, Port Pin. We dropped back down to water level at Port Pin, and climbed towards the sky a second time to reach the next ridge. At our feet far below was now the Calanque d’En-Vau.

Calanque d’En-Vau

I have done climbs with the CAF there, although not on that first memorable outing, but have unfortunately forgotten the name and location of the routes. It might have been on one of the needles that rise along the main walls. I was a young beginner and most routes were quite challenging. I remember climbing with two very different types of partners. There was the older league of climbers with a mountaineering background who still wore heavy, rigid leather boots and did not hesitate hammering pitons into cracks as protection or even for progress. Then there was a much younger movement that was beginning to frown upon permanent or destructive protections and preferred temporary devices. They wore light sneaker-like shoes, chalked their hands, climbed fast and light, rejected artif’—the climbing of a route by suspending oneself to anchors instead of using only holds and passive protection—and, spurred by the tales of a certain Reinhold Messner, they were laying the foundations of what would eventually become the discipline of free solo, spearheaded nowadays by the likes of Alex Honnold and Adam Ondra.

Marie and I devoured our sandwiches high on the ridge, visited by the local ambassadors, some specie of sparrow politely begging for crumbs, and we watched climbers emerge at the very tip of one of the needles just below our utterly scenic picnic spot. A moderate mistral was blowing, but with our backs to the wind and a jacket on, we fared well. Eventually, we decided to ditch our initial plan to walk down to the En-Vau beach because deep afternoon shadows already filled the calanque, and we would have had to either drop down “schuss” on a rather hairy tumbling path or do a long round-trip detour to go fetch the valley leading down.

Climbers emerge

We took our time walking back through the garrigue, shrubby vegetation famous for the smell of its herbs (I will elaborate on this in a later story). On the return drive, cruising by the seaside in Cassis, we were drawn back to the sea and stopped to indulge in a late leisurely stroll along the lively waterfront, typical of small Mediterranean harbors. To my delight, a few pointus were moored among the many sailing vessels. An iconic fishing boat design of the south of France going back hundreds of years and of possible Italian origin, the pointu is a small boat with a simple open deck and a tiller at the stern. It is pointed on both ends and sometimes has a very short mast. Its small inboard engine sputters softly and I can still remember the softly pulsating echo of the fleet coming back from a day out at sea, back in the days when these boats would directly supply the local fish markets.

A pointu in Cassis

Café terraces were full in the golden afternoon light, row after row of a mixed crowd of patrons lined like lemmings, sipping their beverage of choice while all facing the sun, well away from the wind. It is the time at which the day slows down, lines are drawn between now and then, storytelling blossoms, and slight exaggeration might occur—this is the South, after all.

We finally headed back—noticing that while many walked their dog, a few locals were also walking their baguette—and were reminded that we too would have to stop at a boulangerie to accomplish the daily ritual of buying fresh bread.

Une artisane bien cuite for Marie, une classique assez pâle for me.

Most pictures are high resolution; do yourself a favor if using Windows, hit F11 to go full screen before diving into the gallery!

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