At the mouth of the Grand Rhône, the mighty stretch of the river between Arles and the Mediterranean, on the opposite bank from the pristine natural reserve of the Camargue, with its wild white horses, clouds of pink flamingos, and diabolical mosquitoes, is an apocalyptically vast expanse of industrial wasteland, the ZIP (Zone Industrielle Portuaire). The ZIP is the largest oil port on the entire Mediterranean, with refineries ranged across the landscape in an endless procession, each with its own super tanker port. Factories, chemical plants, steelworks, and an incomprehensibly intricate network of power-lines complete the picture of everything one doesn’t usually think of as “Mediterranean”, but there it is, fascinating in its way – you can even take guided tours of the complex.
The ZIP grew out of a need to relieve the overburdened port area of France’s second most-populous city, Marseille, 66km to the east. Between these two behemoths of civilization, however, is a very pleasant bridge of land, the Chaîne de l’Estaque, separating the nearly land-locked basin of the Etang de Berre from the Mediterranean, and the “Côte Bleue”, as it is known, features an attractive variety of charming provençal landscapes and enjoyable seaside villages. On its eastern end, the village of L’Estaque emerges from the suburbs of Marseille where one of the best sandy beaches in the area is very popular with the locals. Cézanne came to visit in 1870 from Paris, and decided to set up his easel; from the hillsides overlooking the red rooftops of the town and the sweeping Gulf of Marseille coastline, the airy seascapes he produced were in marked contrast to the dark, somewhat sociopathic bent of his recent work in Paris. He continued for decades to commute between L’Estaque and his studio at Jas de Bouffan near Aix, and in 1908 Braque and Dufy followed in his footsteps and produced some marvellous paintings of the area around L’Estaque.
The road west from Marseille turns inland just after passing over the now unused Souterrain du Rove, which in its heyday was the world’s longest ship tunnel, over 7km long. Begun in 1911 and officially inaugurated in 1927, it linked the Mediterranean, via canals leading to the Rhône, with waterways deep into France. It remained in use until 1963 when part of the vaulting collapsed; it was never repaired. The coastline along this stretch is dramatic: high limestone cliffs plunging into the sea, overlooking the “calanques” or rocky inlets/creeks; there are lovely walks through the pine forests and Mediterranean “garrigue” along paths perched above the Gulf.
Winding side roads lead down to the pleasant old fishing calanques of La Vesse, Niolon, La Redonne (where the naturalized French modernist writer Blaise Cendrars wrote L'Homme Foudroyé), La Madrague de Gignac, Figuières, and Méjean, but the main road doesn’t meet the coast again until the quiet seaside resort of Carry-le-Rouet, 17km from L’Estaque. The epicentre of the Côte Bleue, Carry has shops, restaurants, cafés, a cinema, a well-known casino and a twice weekly market, as well as some of the most beautiful beaches in the entire Bouches-du-Rhône département, although they can be crowded. Sailing, scuba diving, and parasailing are all popular activities along the Carry coast, and there are clubs, and instruction for the novice. Boat excursions leave from the docks for tours up and down the coast, visiting the Calanques, the Iles-du-Frioul and the Château d'If (made famous in The Count of Monte Cristo), and the entrance to the Vieux-Port of Marseille.
The marvellous French comic actor Fernandel was so seduced by Carry’s charms during a visit in 1939 that he decided to build a family home here. We would have loved to have seen him in action at the unique culinary event hosted in the charming fishing harbour at Carry each February: the “Oursinades”, devoted to that prickly customer, the sea urchin, otherwise known as the sea chestnut. Long tables are set up along the waterfront, with the platters groaning with urchins, oysters, and other marine delectables, best washed down with chilled Cassis white wine.
From Carry-le-Rouet, past the pleasurable little port of Sausset-les-Pins and towards the tiny fishing village of Carro, the coastline takes on progressively gentler contours, and there are broad beaches of fine sand, especially at La Couronne. The entire coast from L’Estaque is under the protection of the Parc Marin de la Côte Bleue (www.parcmarincotebleue.fr). Created in 1982 and extended westward in 1993 to encompass Martigues, the Parc includes 85 hectares of “No Fishing” areas, to encourage marine plant cultivation. From Cap Rousset you can snorkel along winding marine “trails”, looking down through the gentle waves at the peacefully (between meals) gliding fish.
At the western end of the Côte is Martigues, which actually faces inward onto the Etang de Berre. It is a charming little town, pitched over the Canal de Caronte, giving rise to its somewhat presumptuous nickname of the “Venice of Provence”, although its boat-lined watery “streets” provide some nice vistas. It hosts a Sardine Festival during the summer months; one can imagine this would be perhaps slightly more popular than the “Oursinades” at Carry, at least among the British.
Find out more about:
The Calanques www.calanques13.com
View of Marseille from Niolon
Stunning beaches between Martigues and Marseille
© Sébastien Exposito