The spectacular coastline of the eastern Bouches-du-Rhône region is the beginning of the “real” French Mediterranean, as you leave behind the last great city of Provence - Marseille, and all that bouillabaisse – and a relief it probably is to head out through the dwindling suburbs, past that last Geánt Casino, and following the D559 as it gradually winds its way into the breath-taking scenery and landscapes of the National Park des Calanques. Only recently established in 2012, the Park stretches the 20km or so between Marseille and Cassis, and contains some of the most dramatic coastline of the entire Mediterranean. The calanques are narrow steep-walled inlets into the vertiginous limestone cliffs lining the coast, sheltered by pine groves and offering the most wonderful panoramic vistas from their heights, especially from Mont Puget just west of Cassis, at 565m the highest point in the Park.
Much of this coastline is inaccessible except by very pleasant boat tours from the charming café-lined harbour of Cassis. Dating back to Roman times, and overlooked by the 13th century fortifications of the quarrelsome lords of Les Baux, Cassis has a quaint old town with picturesque restored provençal-pastel buildings, and is noted for some fine white and rosé wines produced locally, including a vintage that received the first AOC designation in the region. The scenery eastward of Cassis remains glorious, with the Corniche des Crêtes, and Cap Canaille, at 394m the highest maritime cliffs in Europe.
The ancient port village of La Ciotat has 7km of seafront, with large and crowded (artificial) sandy beaches. It is world-famous in some circles as the setting for the first ever motion picture. In 1896 the Lumière brothers ran their famous reel of a train arriving in La Ciotat station; the Eden theatre where it was shown is still in use, the oldest picture house in the world. La Ciotat also claims to be the birthplace of petánque, with the first tournament taking place in 1910. The Parc de Mugel, one of the Notable Gardens of France, has a marvellous assortment of tropical and provençal plants.
Crossing into the region of the Var, we come to the pleasant village of St-Cyr-sur-Mer, enclosed to the north by pine forests and sun-drenched vineyards. There are lovely sandy beaches at Les Lecques and at the charming small port of La Madrague. Just inland are two interesting sites to visit. Le Castellet is a remarkable old fortress perched high on a hill overlooking the Var plains and the Sainte-Baume massif. Another former stronghold of the lords of Les Baux, and still retaining its old fortifications, ramparts, and portes-fortes, Le Castellet is full of cobbled streets, delightfully-restored old buildings, charming shops, and pleasant squares and restaurants; it is also famous for the Circuit Paul Ricard, a motorsport race track. La Cadière d’Azur is a picturesque medieval village, with town gates, a clocktower, and the church of St-André Eglise dating back to the 16th century, with fabulous views over a sea of vineyards.
Wine has been produced along the Var coast since the time of the Greeks, and some of the best and best-known vintages from the south of France, if rather expensive, come from Bandol, a pleasant seaside resort with its three expansive beaches sheltered by high wooded hills.
Cadière d'Azur © Dominique's Villas
Bandol vineyards © Dominique's Villas
Cassis © Leon Petrosyan