It was mid-September, early evening, when I stopped at a two-story, white-painted, wood-framed guest house, outside of Marseilles. It appeared to be well-maintained although many of its details were obscured in the dim light of the encroaching night. I climbed the steps to the front door and knocked. On both sides spread a covered porch which gave shade from the sun and the chance to enjoy the cooling breezes from the Mediterranean Sea whilst enjoying the view, a perfect spot for a morning coffee.
A matronly woman opened the door. With a smile, and a pat of her gray hair and apron, she welcomed me inside. The compact lobby was decorated with a variety of cacti, miniature palm trees, and small earthen vases of roses, lavender, and rosemary, all creating a soothing calm for the weary traveler.
I signed in and discovered the woman was called Madame Dumas, a distant relation to the great French writer. After giving me the room key, she pointed to a narrow set of stairs, lined with flocked wallpaper containing muted rose designs. The gentle scent of lavender permeated the stairwell.
I awoke early the following morning, thanks to a pair of persistent, squawking gulls sitting on the wrought iron railing of the tiny balcony outside my room which faced the harbour. I planned to visit the famed Calanque de Sugiton and after coffee set off to discover this area of outstanding natural beauty. The sun was rising as I wandered round the harbour, illuminating hundreds of docked boats. Many were either being loaded with supplies for other destinations or offloaded from distant lands. Along the wharf, I saw boxes of fresh fruit, an infinite variety of seafood, fresh produce, and manufactured merchandise. Above all, sea gulls glided on the breeze, some diving for fish in the harbor or morsels of food on the docks.
On the surrounding hillsides were elegant two-story Mediterranean villas, typical of the region, with red tile roofs, white stucco and limestone walls, and heavy security gates. Second only to Paris in size, Marseilles is the most active port in France with access to all the countries that line the shores of the Mediterranean, including Morocco, Italy, Greece, the Balkans, and France. It is rightly called the ‘Gateway to France’. The 2600-year-old town was founded by the Greeks and expanded by the Romans.
I flagged down a taxi and headed to the Calanques. We drove along the wharves and turned onto a dirt track. The scenery was spectacular in the early morning light, with the surface of the aquamarine Sea covered by a slight mist being burned off by the sun now well up in the sky. The hillsides were parched nearly lifeless by the intense sun of the past two months, save for some gnarly olive trees, umbrella pines, and maquis: a combination of sage, myrtle, and the occasional juniper bush.
Several deep gorges came into view. Carved into the limestone shore, the sound of the surf booming into the calanques was thunderous and impressive. While essentially bare, the walls revealed scattered bits of vegetation clinging to them, trying to survive in these barren places. The taxi driver stopped at the side of the road and told me the rest of the way would need to be on foot and that he’d wait for me to go back as I wouldn’t find a taxi driver here. He was happy to sit in the beautiful setting a while he said.
While narrow, the route was not especially steep, as it wound back and forth. The walls of the calanque were rough, coarse limestone, showing the effects of countless batterings over eons, by the waters of the Mediterranean. A stone bench had been carved into the limestone, and sitting there, I could see Marseille shimmering in the morning light. Pushing on, the walk became more arduous and in places precarious, peppered with grottos and stone benches. It’s not for the faint of heart, or for those with mobility problems but it is an impressive sight – just don’t attempt it if you have vertigo!
By John Pekich producer, director, actor and writer, especially of original Sherlock Holmes and Victorian Mysteries in Cape May, New Jersey, USA