Swimming in the Fjords of Marseille

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Calanque de MorgiouCalanque de SormiouA small calanque about an hour's walk from Callelonge
Since arriving in mid-September and up to two weeks ago, the weather has been summer-like with a comfortable daytime temperature of 75 to 80 degrees F. Then, in one day, fall arrived. Shirt sleeves grew in length, a second layer of clothing added in the evening. Before this brief Marseille period of summertime recedes in my memory, let me describe a perfect warm day Marseille outing on October 3rd.

The calanques are very small fjords, tiny coves set amid white limestone cliffs and mountains and occasionally dramatic facades of stone. They sit aside 12 miles of coastline and are about 2.5 miles in width. The calanques are managed by various local governments with plans in process for them to be better protected as a national park sometime after 2010. They are a haven for hikers, rock climbers, sailors, bathers, fisherman, tourists on excursion boats from le vieux port in Marseille (who don’t disembark), and the lucky owners of tiny cabanons marseillais, family owned vacation cabins. Located within the municipality of Marseille, some calanques are a twenty-minute bus ride from the city center.

Joined by friends from the U.S who also enjoy hiking, we took the metro to Rond Point du Prado and then boarded a waiting bus #23. The bus was full as we headed south; we started talking with an older couple who were curious about four people talking English on their bus. The husband was Egyptian and the wife was Turkish and they wished us a good sojourn in Marseille as they got off the bus before us.

At our stop, we found ourselves at La Cayolle at the outskirts of the city and next to the white chalky mountains that are visible from most anywhere in the city. We hiked a trail and looked back at Marseille and then down a valley to the Calanque de Sormiou. It looked like a miniature port village and we followed a trail down that ranged alongside mostly one lane paved road. It was a Saturday, so locals in cars were taking advantage. The distance on foot from the bus stop to the calanques was perhaps only 2 miles.

At the bottom of the valley we walked through a lane of cabanons. These started off as cabins for fisherman and sheepherders and over generations within families have been enlarged to still microscopic (to an American’s eyes) vacation cabins, modest but cozy. We then found pleasure boats in a tiny harbor and beached ashore, one restaurant overlooking a rocky beach full of bathers, and more dwellings on both sides of the cove.

The color of the water was intensely clear and azure. Yes this is – or near – the cote d’azur! We followed the European custom of a discrete change to swimming attire in full view of everyone’s averted eyes. (This is accomplished using a towel either standing or sitting.) Then, we plunged! The water temperature was refreshingly warm and the clarity of the water proven by a number of snorkelers. A hike and a swim: what pleasure!

Departing, we followed a path going south past idyllic, larger cabins each with its required outdoor dining table with a view of the calanque. We started to climb steep switchbacks to a height of 755 feet and looked down to Sormiou and the sea, sky, and small islands towards Marseille. We then followed a path down and across to the Calanque de Morgiou. The rocky path was well-marked and maintained.

Morgiou is more difficult to reach and probably less visited, but similar in ingredients to Sormiou: day trippers arriving by car over a one lane paved road, hikers arriving from several directions, cute cabanons, a rocky beach and rockier coves, small pleasure boats, and one busy restaurant with coveted open air seating. After a picnic and another delightful swim, we headed out of the valley on an easy trail to the stop for bus #22 and civilization. The total distance hiked was perhaps six miles.

Back in Marseille, feeling sandy and contented from the exercise, sea water, and fresh air, we stopped for a drink in an outdoor café. Marseille has a seemingly endless number of busy cafes and appears to be bucking the trend of a declining number of cafes in France.

On this warm Saturday in early October in Marseille, with the cold Rhone River valley wind soon to arrive, urban life and nature mixed easily.

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One Response to “Swimming in the Fjords of Marseille”

  1. Gloria and Karl Says:

    Rudy, what will the water temp be like in late May? Glo

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