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French Riviera,
the Paradise Hides Behind the Cliff!

Laurent Lefèvre

From the Gaou island located in Six-Fours-les-Plages (Var) to the Calanques national park (Bouches-du-Rhône), the French Riviera (Côte d'Azur) offers many hiking possibilities all year round.

The French Riviera, in the South of France, is well known for its beaches (often crowded in summer like in Nice), its spring and summer festivals (Aix-en-Provence Festival, Jazz à Juan, Cannes Film Festival…) and its awe-inspiring villas (not for rent on Airbnb!) hosting extravagant parties (not tagged as public events on Facebook!). La Côte d’Azur, as it is called in French, has actually a lot to offer to enthusiastic hikers and swimmers looking for a turquoise blue sea. “Yes, [guys], there are things to see and do on the French Riviera without spending money”, noted the writer Robert A. Heinlein. Get into your swimming suits, your hiking shoes, and follow us!

La lagune du Brusc s'étire paisiblement vers l'île du Gaou, Six-Fours-les-Plages (Côte d'Azur, France).
The Brusc lagoon stretching peacefully toward the Gaou island, Six-Fours-les-Plages , on the French Riviera.

A Trek to the Gaou Island

A seaside town located at the southwest of Toulon (Var, Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur), Six-Fours-les-Plages offers several options for hiking, specifically a trek path that stretches out from the port of Coudoulière [in French] to the Gaou Island via a coastal path passing through several beaches. Once you have reached the Le Brusc cornice , walk along a lagoon with calm, shallow, and translucent waters that extends all the way to the Gaou Island. 

That one-meter deep expanse of water is a place where thrives the Posidonia oceanica (commonly known as Neptune grass), a protected endemic species. Closed to navigation and swimming , that protected area, called nursery, offers shelter for fish against predators. “For several decades it has suffered in various places, a retreat and an atrophy caused by human activity,” warns Frederic Elie [in French], a scientist

The way to the Petit Gaou Island goes through a bridge that spans the isthmus of Gaou, a passage between the open sea (the Mediterranean) and the lagoon. On the island, it is possible to swim in shallow water facing the Embiez islands and then reach the Grand Gaou Island through a footbridge crossing a small arm of the sea. On its southern side stands erect a woman’s sculptor inspired by Aristide Maillol. Over the years and the sea spray, its shapes have gradually shrunk, which amuses the local, envying her out of the corner of their eye!

The island is a protected natural habitat, home to numerous animal species (sea urchins, starfish, sea snails, anemones, octopus, livebearers and various fish species – goby, scorpion fish, moray eel…) and plants (wild olive tree, marine cyst, green cypress, papyrus…).

Once the island’s tour completed it is time to go back through the bridge and admire the moored fishing boats one last time.

La Calanque d'En-Vau, paradis des kayaks, parc national des Calanques (Bouches-du-Rhône, France).
The Calanque d'En-Vau, hidden garden of kayaks, Calanques National Park (Bouches-du-Rhône, France).

The Paradise Is Behind the Cliff!

Approximately 40 km from the Gaou Island, located between Marseille and La Ciotat, stands Cassis, one of the three towns that hosts the Calanques National Park. Created in 2012, it is part of the 11 French national parks [in French] and extends over 43,500 ha (43,500 ha for its marine heart). A two days’ hike* from Callelongue (Marseille) to Cassis, will enable you to discover the numerous wonders of the Calanques National Park, home to 140 protected animal and plant species (including Bonelli’s eagles) and 60 marine species – sea turtles, dolphins which can be admired from the shore.

Well-marked and practicable paths, accessible all year round, including the GR 51-98, may be followed in two stages (the first and second stage). Hike along the coast, up the cliffs, then dive towards the creeks, where a swim in the crystal-clear turquoise water is a must, to snorkel, refresh, and rest. Remember to bring drinking water supplies for the day, which are not available on the route.

Une vue plongeante sur la calanque d'En-Vau, parc national des Calanques (Bouches-du-Rhône, France).
Creek of d’En-Vau (Calanque d'En-Vau) in Cassis (avril 2015), Calanques National Park.

At the end of the second stage, before reaching Port Miou and Cassis, the creeks of Port Pin and En-Vau compete in beauty with that of Sormiou and its beach discovered the first day.

If you are ready to spend a little money, in spite of Robert A. Heinlein’adage, you can discover the creeks and the cliffs from the sea by kayak – either independently by renting a boat at Port Miou or with a guide. Along the way, it is possible to explore underwater caves (such as the blue cave, Porte de Rome…), or even rest on the creeks. Note that a walk accompanied by a guide allows you to visit several caves like l’Ermite, Saint-Michel-d’Eau douce, and l’Ours.

The Calanques National Park, which shelters the highest coastal cliffs in Europe (Cap Canaille), is also the playground of many climbing enthusiasts. Experienced adepts, such as the world champion Lionel Franc, train there for the extreme practice of high-flying diving.

From Creek to Creek

Breathtaking views, aren’t they? If you are inspired by these landscapes, you are not the first! “The whole future of art is to be found in the South of France, claimed Vincent Van Gogh. In fact, if you [have] a creative [mind], the South of France is the only place to go on holidays as the pace of life, which will let you relax to the max and the sight of it will both heal your soul and inspire your work.”

* Check with the Calanques National Park, which may close access in case of fire risk. A booking system is under review to limit the access to 400-600 people a day. At peak hours during summer school, the beaches which are located near a parking lot can be crowded. The last week of August, there was few people on the path.

Calanque de Port -Pin, à Cassis, parc national des Calanques (Bouches-du-Rhône, France).
Creek of Port Pin (calanque de Port Pin) in Cassis, Calanques National Park.
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