I took so many photos. This is nowhere near all of them.
I left my bizarre dorm-B&B to a chorus of indifference from my temporary roommates. In light of the previous day’s navigational adventures, I got an early start and gave myself a good 8 hours for perhaps a 5-hour walk. I would end my day in the seaside town of Cassis, my final stop in France.
This walk was stunning. Breathtaking. Astonishing. All those clichés that I wish I didn’t use so much, because it leaves me with inadequate adjectives for a situation like this. It was also hair-raisingly precipitous, with narrow paths clinging to towering cliff-faces, and climbs up sheer rock walls requiring the heavily-laden hiker to test her strength, balance, and grip, or else plummet to her death.
Whenever I felt that my life wasn’t in immediate danger, I took photos. Everywhere I looked, I saw a view that I didn’t want to forget.
I was alone for most of the morning, the terrain being a bit inhospitable for the casual outdoorsperson. Just at the point when the dizzying heights and crushing loneliness were beginning to threaten morale, though, two runners overtook me. I could see them coming up behind me for some time, skipping gaily along ledges that had almost sent me plunging to my death only minutes before.
They stopped for breath and a chat when they reached me, and they were pleasantly eager to share their knowledge of the region. I learned, for example, that some of the tallest cliffs in the south of France were to come very shortly (photos below). They were also excited to practice their smattering of English on me, which led to the following exchange (italics were said in French, non-italics in English):
DUDE 1: You’ll love Cassis! It has several…what’s the word in English…bitch?
DUDE 2: Yes, it’s true! Very nice bitch.
DUDES 1 & 2: [Smiling happily at me]
DUDES 1 & 2: [Smiling expectantly at me]
ME: …Oh, BEACHES!
My running friends eventually continued on their way, wishing me bon courage for the rest of my walk. There is something about that well-intentioned sentiment that gives me the opposite of courage. It’s as Han Solo says: “Good luck! (Yer gonna need it.)”
As it turned out, I was past the most palm-moistening parts of my walk by now. Though the terrain was still very much variations on the theme of ‘steep’, the path had at least widened, and it’s also possible that my body had just run out of whatever hormone it is that makes you fear death. By the time the path dipped down into a sort of gorge, I was quite sad to be leaving the bowel-loosening heights of the cliffs.
That didn’t last long, of course. The gorge ended at the bottom of a sheer, towering wall of rock. “Surely I don’t have to climb that,” I thought, naively. Some minutes later, I was sprawled at the top of that same rock-wall, gasping out a torrent of very rude words between laboured breaths.
From there, though, it really was clear sailing. I began to pass cheerful groups of chattering hikers as the ground leveled out somewhat and Cassis grew bigger before me. The path dipped down to a beach on one last calanque, the Calanque de Port Pin, which is clearly a popular stop for hikers. Hot and tired, I tore my boots off and strode ankle-deep into the clear, sparkling water. With a yelp and a leap, I was back on the beach. The sun may have made it feel like June, but it was definitely December in the waters of the Mediterranean.
I climbed a small final hill, smiling through gritted teeth at the holiday-makers all around me complaining about this one minor exertion, and there was the end of the park. Just like that!
It was about 1:30 pm. I hadn’t even stopped for lunch yet.
With many hours to kill before my Cassis AirBnB would be ready, I set about exploring the town. Well, no, I started by walking straight to the first seafront restaurant I came upon, sitting on their patio, and ordering a kilogram of moules frites. They were both divine and restorative.
Feeling like a new woman, I took a look around Cassis. It’s a charming little town, touristy but not cloying (at least in December), and it’s managed to shun the luxury travel market that I hear has ruined most of the Côte d’Azure. The town’s main drag faces onto the port, and restaurants buy their seafood from fishermen selling the day’s catch only steps away from their front doors. As ever, I tracked down the local Christmas market, which felt totally out of place in this sunny, 25°C paradise. The poor Père Noël must have been roasting…
I checked in to my AirBnB, took a nice big nap, tried & failed to take a bath because there was no hot water, then my BO and I hit the town again in search of supper. Found a place with a decent-looking dinner special and loads of locals making merry inside (good sign) and grabbed the last table I could find. I’d just placed my order and settled in with my journal and a glass of wine, when two middle-aged gentlemen approached me. My shields were up as they sheepishly asked if they could possibly sit with me and watch the football match. One of them clocked me with uncanny accuracy, though, when he added that they would buy my drinks for the evening in exchange. Welcome aboard!
We fell into conversation, discovering (to my astonishment, after a full week passed exclusively in French) that English was the most comfortable language for all of us. My new friends, Norwegian Jon and Swiss Robert, dutifully kept me in my cups, and we chatted away for hours.
Norwegian Jon was clearly the gregarious one, accustomed to holding court, friends with everyone in the room. I was vaguely irritated that he seemed to expect to be right all the time – to be seen as the go-to authority on everything under the sun. I challenged him on certain bold assertions he made (max. population that the Earth can sustain, for example; YOU’RE WRONG NORWEGIAN JON, I READ ABOUT THIS IN NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC), since I can’t pass up an opportunity to sass a stranger. It was all perfectly friendly, but I could see that he wasn’t used to being talked back to. Anyway, after he left, Swiss Robert revealed that Norwegian Jon is in fact a bajillionaire with a sprawling villa, who gets invited to royal parties and things all the time. So I guess that was my big chance to seduce a millionaire, spoiled as usual by my lip. (You’re welcome, Mike.)
Swiss Robert & I then chatted with a local at another table, who used to live in Montreal. I’ve mentioned this one before. Very much enjoyed the novelty of gushing about NHLer Michael Cammalleri, of all people, with a Frenchman in Cassis, but wasn’t overly sympathetic to his complaint that Canadian women are too assertive. Maybe he & Norwegian Jon could find some common ground there.
But by that point I was too tired to argue, full of wine, cognac, and some bizarre pear eau de vie, along with an otherworldly fish soup, dos de loup (I think loup is seabass?), and apple tart. I exchanged sleepy bisous with my new friends and waddled happily off to my Airbnb one last time. I really did love Cassis.
And just like that, my walking tours were over. I bused to Marseille early the next morning, took one last look at the city, ate one last fish couscous (holy. cow.), then caught my plane back to Prague.
What a trip this was, though. There were some days when I felt a bit disconnected, I suppose, but by the end, I felt a powerful affinity with Provence. I mean, it’s Provence. I’m hardly the first. The amazing food & drink helped out there (seafood…yumm…couscous…omgggggg…rosé…who knew it could be so delicious???). And the people! The whole time I was there, people – locals for crying out loud – kept telling me that the French are rude, that they hate foreigners, all the usual stuff. Yet I had almost exclusively lovely encounters. They were possibly the warmest people, on the whole, I met in all my travels. What’s the deal?!
On the other hand, can you imagine living in a place with *those* views, *that* food, all that culture & history, and gorgeous summery weather stretching into December, and ever being grumpy?? No, I refuse to believe it.