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Discover the Calanques National Park: A hiker's dream near Marseille

January 26, 2024

In the south of France, there is a place that combines views like the Norwegian fjords, a pleasant Mediterranean climate and French cuisine. Sound too good to be true? The fact that it takes less than an hour to get there by bus from the centre of Marseille makes it even better!

I am thinking of the Parc national des Calanques, or Calanques. It is no wonder that Marseille and the Mistral have given rise to so many songs, poems, books and not to mention paintings. The Mistral is a wind that, due to the appearance of the surroundings, blows in the area, and it is said that it always blows for three days. If it hasn't stopped after three days, it blows for three more. And how it can blow!

Why the Calanques?

We love the Calanques and want to share them so that more people can discover the sweeping views, amazing scents, and delicious food. The Calanques are perfect for anyone who enjoys the outdoors, and who doesn't when the sun shines almost every day? The ability to combine the pulse of the city with the peace and quiet of nature makes Marseille and its Calanques a favourite destination!

Where are the Calanques located?

The Calanques are located in the south of France, along the Mediterranean Sea. The park stretches from Marseille in the west to Le Ciotat in the east, with Cassis nestled somewhere in between. To the north we find La-Penne-sur-Huveaune, and looking south the park extends into the sea and includes the Ile de Frioul archipelago. The size of the park is comparable to Long Island and Manhattan combined, totalling around 55,000 hectares.

Climate and best time to visit

The south of France has a pleasant climate with many days of sunshine throughout the year, and the Calanques are no exception. Because it is a nature reserve, the park administration can close the park if necessary to protect the natural values of the park or the safety of the park's visitors. The best way to stay up to date is with the park's own app:

For Android: Mes Calanques - Parc national on the Google Play Store

For iPhone: Mes Calanques in the App Store

At certain times, such as when the Mistral is blowing, some walks/sites in the park are closed to visitors as some trails go through exposed terrain where the cliffs can be very high, and a fall would be fatal. So don't underestimate any closures or recommendations. 

The most popular time to visit the park is August when many French people are on holiday. But the best time to visit the park is September and October, when the water is often warm, the weather is pleasant and there are fewer visitors. April, May, and June is also a great time to visit the Calanques, but the water isn’t quite as warm at this time. From November to March, the weather is more unstable and as most of the surface is limestone, it becomes very slippery if wet. Visiting is still possible, and even recommended as there are far fewer visitors, but it requires more planning.

Things to do in the Calanques

The range of activities to enjoy is extensive and includes both physical activity and opportunities for relaxation. Many people visit the park for hiking or trail running. There is an extensive network of trails, ranging from short tours suitable for families with children who want to try out hiking, to those who are more adventurous. If you are an experienced hiker, the entire park can be crossed, a distance of 45 km that takes two or three days, depending on your pace.

The Calanques are also a mecca for climbers, snorkelers, and divers. Climbers appreciate the endless opportunities to adapt to the conditions, the grip-friendly rocks, and the unrivalled views from the top. There are rock walls in all directions so you can climb in the shade all day. Snorkelers and divers appreciate the varied marine fauna and crystal-clear turquoise waters. For those who venture below the surface, there are opportunities to encounter octopus, lobster, seahorse, and turtles.

If you're not so adventurous, the Calanques invite relaxation in many different forms. Or how about spending the day on a paradise beach under the sun with the most turquoise water you've ever seen? One of our favourite tips is to bring a yoga mat and do a yoga session, either on the beach or up on the rocks. Yoga with a warm wind in your face and the smell of pine is dreamy!

More speed and fanfare? No problem! Book an electric MTB tour with evtt-provence and discover the park on two wheels with the help of a motor. Suitable for those who are a little more daring and you need to be about 160 cm tall or more to fit the bike. Highly recommended!

Hiking

This time we did two different hikes, a slightly shorter one suitable for almost everyone and a longer one that requires more experience and a relatively good level of fitness. Both walks start and end about 45 minutes from the Vieux-Port in Marseille by bus, and a bus ticket costs (2023) €1,70.

Read more about public transport in Marseille

Les Baumettes via Calanque Sormiou, 5 km

The shorter tour starts in Les Baumettes, and takes you via a pass to Calanque Sormiou, a picturesque place inhabited by fishermen. The hike itself is not difficult, but it does go over some uneven ground so good footwear is essential. The water is shallow and therefore particularly suitable for families with children. There is also a restaurant at both the start and the end, so if you run out of supplies, everything will be fine.

Montredon to Callelounge, 7.3 km

The longer walk takes you up and around the Marseilleveyre massif, offering unrivalled views of the Mediterranean and the Ile de Frioul archipelago. It winds upwards, passing caves and peaks. You emerge with rock walls that rival the skyscrapers of the world's major cities. It starts in Montredon and ends in Callelongue.

This is a tour that should only be done by really experienced hikers when the conditions are right as some parts are very exposed. There are no shops/restaurants along the route, so you have to take what you need with you. But the reward is well worth the effort!

What can you do in Marseille?

Marseille is France's second largest city after Paris and is home to almost two million people. Marseille has a long and rich history dating back to 600 BC when the first Greeks landed and built a castle on the hill where the Le Panier neighbourhood is today. The location was strategic for the defence of the city, with good views and proximity to the sea. 

Le Panier, Marseille's oldest neighbourhood, has today become a centre for what is known in French as "des artisanaux", or small producers. Here you can find local artists, sculptors, designers and shops selling local delicacies. A must is a visit to Les Navettes des Accoules to buy and taste the local delicacy 'navette', a pastry flavoured with orange blossom.

Marseille is a truly outdoorsy city and its residents love to socialise, and there are a few places that are particularly popular. The Vieux Port (old harbour) is the most popular, and in the evening there is almost always a festive atmosphere!

Tourists often flock to the Cours Honoré d'Estienne d'Orves square nearby and the amount of outdoor seating here is impressive to say the least. For those looking for something more authentic and less touristy, the Cours Julien a short walk away is an absolute must.

Here, the outdoor seating is less crowded and the bars are a bit more alternative without being difficult. The atmosphere is very open and welcoming and it's clear that this is a favourite spot for the people of Marseille.

If you like coffee, your best bet is La Boutchica, a local coffee roastery that roast its own coffee. The people who run it and work here are real coffee nerds, so if you appreciate espresso, cortado or a really good cappuccino, this place is not to be missed. For the rest of the party, Marseille's best patisserie happens to be next door, Sylvain Depuichaffray. If you mention it to a Marseille resident, they'll get a dreamy look in their eyes.

However, it's virtually impossible to talk about Marseille and not mention the city's beaches. The one closest to the old town is Plage des Catalans, which gets crowded on sunny summer days. Just one kilometre from the city centre (10 minutes on a Bolt/Lime/VOI), it's an obvious choice for an evening or morning swim. There's also an underwater museum, the Musée Subaquatique de Marseille, which is worth a visit if you like snorkelling.

We have however saved the best tip for last, and that is to bring a takeaway pizza to eat at the sunset at the church of Notre Dame de la Garde. Nice evenings are magical, and the absolute best way to experience Marseille.

Packing suggestions:

  • Water! It's almost always hot, and running out of water is no fun.

  • Snacks such as fruit, nuts and bars.

  • Sunscreen - at least factor 30 and apply it 30 minutes before you start hiking. Good rule of thumb. The sun is scorching in Provence!

  • Sunglasses and cap/sun hat.

  • Comfortable, lightweight hiking shoes.

  • Thin layers of breathable clothing.

  • Mobile phone with FATMAP link downloaded so you can access it if the internet is slow.

  • Don't forget to charge and bring a power bank!

  • Swimwear and a travel towel so you can swim! A hike is much more pleasant if you can take a bath! 

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