by Mary Winston Nicklin
The first new national park in metropolitan France since 1979 is in Marseille.
Marseille is famous for many things bouillabaisse, spirited hip hop, a fierce soccer team (and even fiercer fans) but peace-and-quiet is not one of them. Yet just at the doorstep of France’s second city, the Massif des Calanques is a spectacular wilderness area situated along 20 kilometers of Mediterranean coastline: pocked with fjord-like inlets called calanques, carved from precipitous limestone cliffs looming over the turquoise sea. Officially declared a national park on August 18, 2012, Les Calanques is the first new national park in metropolitan France since 1979, and the first in Europe located in a pre-urban area. France’s 10th national park is fabulously primeval. Almost within earshot of the city, but far from Marseille’s metropolitan rhythms, this rugged landscape first appears to be hostile to wildlife: Aleppo pines cling to the sun-scorched slopes, bent at odd angles by the wind. But it’s actually teeming with flora and fauna, some rare species like Gouffé grass and an orchid called Ophrys massiliensis found nowhere else in the world. It’s a nesting site for Bonelli’s Eagle, the Peregrine Falcon and the Great Horned Owl, whose call can be heard echoing across the cliffs at winter sunset. The threatened Lézard ocellé, the largest lizard in France, hides among the boulders, and wild boar and foxes nose through the Mediterranean maquis. In all, over 140 threatened plant and animal species have protected status on land, along with 60 marine species. Even though 1.3 million visitors flock to this paradise each year, it offers a serene break from the city. Hikers follow the GR98 from Les Goudes, a village southwest of Marseille, to Cassis. God’s eye views of the sea and sweeping vistas of the Riou archipelago more than make up for the fact that you need to carry all your water with you. (There are no springs bubbling through the arid soil.) Above the crashing surf, adrenaline junkies scale the cliffs in one of Europe’s best rock-climbing destinations. Sun-seekers bronze their bodies on crescent-shaped beaches in protected coves where boats bob at anchor. Not exactly a landlubber? You can hop on a cruise from Marseille, or rent a kayak to explore the calanques’ nooks and crannies. This is a far different Côte d’Azur than the one conjured in the collective daydreams of people around the world. It’s hidden away from the glam Riviera of sleek yachts moored in Antibes, St. Tropez’s celebrity-studded nightclubs, and the coveted beach loungers in Cannes. But the Massif des Calanques has been prized real estate for millennia. Evidence of human settlement goes back 27,000 years in the superb Grotte Henri Cosquer, an underwater cave decorated with prehistoric paintings depicting the penguins and seals that frequented the area in a much colder climate. And the quaint fishermen’s shelters called cabanons, made legendary in 1950s pop songs, are part of Marseille’s cultural fabric. Indeed, the goal of the national park is to protect this human patrimony along with the wildlife inhabiting the park’s 8,500 terrestrial hectares and 43,500 marine hectares. Even within the park, people can still pick mushrooms and wild herbs (like rosemary, thyme and fennel) for household use. And so, through sustainable tourism, the peaceful cohabitation can continue…
www.visite-des-calanques.com (Icard Maritime)