16 August, 2009

Cassidaine by day.

I've just spent a lovely stretch of time on the Côte d'Azur. I've great affection for the Côte d'Azur--of yore. That sepia notion looms large: a stunning coastline, peppered with impossibly charming villages which were the sun-filled, color-drenched locus of artists, writers, royalty and movie stars. This is the Côte d'Azur of say, some 30 or 40 years ago, before gaudy resort over-development and summer gridlock reared their ugly heads, like the advance guard of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Or something like that.

Luckily, beyond St. Tropez, Cannes, Nice and Monaco, there do remain a few (relatively) idyllic exceptions today. One is Cassis.
On the western-most border of the French Riviera, Cassis is a village of about 8,000 residents tucked into an inlet some 20 miles from Marseille. The beautiful white cliffs richly in evidence here have been quarried since antiquity, yielding a limestone used, among other things, for the base of New York's Statue of Liberty. I visited the nearby calanques, or coastal inlets; the tour's worth the ticket queue at sultry noon. The untenanted little bays and coves, with their imposing, cathedral-like cliffs and outcroppings (and a million plus visitors per year) still manage to seem somehow secret, serene and wild. The calanques are slated to become part of a national park in 2010, so the number of visitors (on foot, by bike, and boat) and attendant regulations are bound to increase. Visit soon if you can, and rent a kayak while you're at it.
As for Cassis itself, it is a low-key charmer of a port village, with creamy limestone-inlaid streets, gurgling fountains, aqua-hued Vespas, and laundry fluttering from windows. While outside of town you do have a one or two high-end options, the laid-back hotels in the village itself range from fairly spartan to comfortable but basic; this does impact the number of people who visit. I was concerned about the hordes of mid-August, but my worry was needless: while vibrantly busy, the village isn't overwhelmed, and the locals are friendly. I explored the large open air market, where I spotted some Reine-Claudes next to Provencal apricots. (Reine-Claudes grow in my garden, and are a tart, mouth-filling delight; they remain green, even when lusciously ripe, and are my favorite kind of plum, whether eaten out of the hand, or cooked. I digress).
The range of olives on display--purple, black, pink as well as green--were a delight (I sampled too!), as were the types and quantities of savon de Marseille, itself made from olive oil.
There were crafts, jewelry, summer frocks, and pottery on tempting display. I found myself out in the port itself, scrubbed nearly clean of its fishing past and reinvented as a starting point for leisure whether by yacht or rowboat. I also stumbled onto l'Eau de Cassis, in business since 1851. My home smells the lovelier for it (I left with Au Coin du Feu).
Of course, all this summer exploring leaves a girl quite thirsty; fortunately for me, in Cassis, there are certainly bars and restaurants enough.
I can recommend a stop at friendly local landmark Nino (a reservation may be necessary). Speaking of thirst, I'm off to refill my gin and tonic. I'll fill you in on the nightlife in Cassis in the next entry...

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