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Marseilles & the Calanques, 2007

Calanque de Sormiou

I had a French exchange when I was 13 years old by name of Philippe. He was a fledgling psychopath who lived on a farm outside Marseilles on France’s south coast. His favourite pastime involved surprise-attacking frogs and hurling them into a nearby chicken run where certain doom awaited. My solitary escape from Philippe’s farm was a day-trip to Marseilles itself. My childhood impression was that this was the biggest, grimiest, dirtiest, fishiest city in the whole wide world.

Fast forward a couple of decades and I’m back in Marseilles with my ever-loving wife. It’s still a great big, dirty city but, this time around, I find this all exceedingly glamorous. Perhaps it’s the yachts that seem to sail right into the city centre. Or maybe it’s the massive Church of Notre Dame de la Garde overlooking the entirety. At any rate, I challenge anyone to take a spin down the main boulevard of La Canebière and not feel hopelessly epic. The streets are overrun with bright young things swigging mojitos, chewing curry flavoured popcorn and ogling one another through tinted shades.

Marseilles has had a long and arduous history, not least in the past sixty years. The Germans and Italians bombed seven shades of hell out of the city in the Second World War. The oil crisis of the 70s converted the place into a hardcore gangster’s paradise, particularly for those of both Islamic and National Front persuasion. I was expecting Popeye Doyle to stumble around the corner with some hot dogs at any moment (‘The French Connection‘). But things have been on the up these past 20 years with a boom in hi-tech industry and a resurgence in the shipping trade.

The history still shines through. Even the city’s sewage system is a couple of thousand years old. Marseilles started life as a safe haven for Greek sailors before Julius Caesar conquered it for Rome. Never one to accept central authority, Marseilles has a habit of siding with anyone that likes to rebel. Hence, the city roared ‘Viva La Revolution!’ in 1792 and sent 500 volunteers to defend Paris. That’s why France’s national anthem is La Marseillaise.

Hidden in the hills of Aubgane, 15 miles east of Marseilles, is Chateau la Royante, a guesthouse run by Xénia and Bernard Saltiel.  This stunning 19th century manor house, where the Archbishop of Marseille once lived, is completely off the beaten track. You’re not going to find bellboys in the lobby or showercaps in the bathroom. Nor will you get away with simply exchanging curt nods with fellow guests; you’ll feel compelled to shake their hands and say something outrageous like ‘Bonjour‘.

There isn’t even a bar to turn to, but never fear because Bernard has a wine cellar that would make many a Roman Emperor splutter with envy. Bernard was an engineer of some import in times past, charged with modernising the diamond mines of South Africa, USA, Congo, Morocco, Australia and so forth. Indeed – and I whisper – he suspects there are still substantial gold resources in the mountains of Ulster. So you might consider that as you lie back by La Royante’s pool and enjoy some good old-fashioned French hospitality. This is the same sun-drenched, lavender-scented landscape that inspired French novelist Marcel Pagnol to write such epics as ‘Jean de Florette‘ and ‘My Mother’s Castle‘.

Aubagne is the HQ for the French Foreign Legion and is where all wannabe Legionnaires come for three weeks of gruelling check ups, physical training and aptitude tests, all conducted by the Legion’s internal self-styled Gestapo. It turns out  that while my French exchange is probably doing time for serial murder, my brother’s exchange became a senior officer in the Foreign Legion.

La Ferme Auberge is an astonishingly good restaurant famed for its Provencal cuisine. Another highlight of this delightful area is the rampantly exotic coastline running from Marseilles to Cassis and known as the Calanques. Or the Klankys, if you’re from Monaghan. These were the creation of a major climate change some 12,000 years ago when the Mediterranean rose up and gobbled a chunk of the south French coast. What was left behind is now mile upon mile of thundering white cliffs rising with Gallic arrogance from the frothy ocean, juxtaposed with hypnotic bays where mermaids live and juniper-scented peaks that would falter a Sherpa’s stride.

Young lovers occasionally meet amid the rocks to discuss the nesting habits of such rare and unusual birds as the Bonelli eagle and the Peregrine Falcon. Goats also love it here because of the Gouffé grass, considered the foiegras of grass by those in the know. It exists nowhere else in the world. You’d have thought someone might snaffle a few Gouffé seeds and bring them on down to those poor billygoats in the south of Spain who’ve got nothing to munch on except the occasional mouldy olive.

To view the Calanques, you need to go by boat. Fais attention parce que if the sea is rough, you could be in for some serious decibellic challenges. Our voyage looked like a 1970s disaster movie from the start. By the time we were two miles into the outstandingly bouncy journey, the passengers were screaming so loud the armies of the Middle East must have looked up at the sky with a start. You’ll find the boat in Cassis, a small coastal port whose weather-beaten citizens have been making a few bucks drying cod and quarrying limestone for the past few hundred years.

This article appeared in Abroad in May 2007.