Along the quayside in the Provençal port of Cassis, locals are talking about the new national park which is about to be created along the starkly beautiful coastline that stretches 20k west to Marseille.
The Parc Nationale des Calanques will open in early 2012, after several years of haggling between
government officials, environmentalists, fishermen, tour-operators and local
associations. It is a big moment, because it is France’s first national park
since 1979. It is also unique in being a mixed land-and-sea reserve and in being on the doorstep of the
country’s second largest city, Marseille.
The Calanques, a
series of limestone cliffs and inlets, have survived intact despite being only
a stone’s throw from Marseille’s southern suburbs. It helps that the hills are
rocky and harsh – only the hardy Aleppo pine clings to the sparse earth – while
most of the creeks are only accessible by boat.
Despite the area’s topographic inhospitality, tourism is
already taking a toll. It is reckoned that 1.3 million people visit the Calanques every year, making it one of the most
popular tourist sites in the country. Experts say the meagre soil is being
eroded by walkers, while anchors rip up the underwater expanses of Posidonia sea-grass. The constant cruising of tour
boats and their blaring loud-speaker commentary is wrecking the tranquillity.
The core of the national park will extend more than 200 sq
miles, a fifth of it on land. In a larger zone (mainly at sea), less strict
rules will apply. A small part of the maritime core will be totally off-limits
for fishing but otherwise most activities will continue under tightened rules. On
land, the aim is also to regulate rather than ban. Hikers for example will be
obliged to stick to the official trails, and rock-climbing will be on
designated sites only.
“Sure, we will have to make concessions,” said Bruno
Marques, president of the association of Cassis bateliers, or tour-boat operators. “We will have to use smaller
boats. We won’t be able to go so far down the creeks. We’ll have to turn down
our loudspeakers. But the sacrifices are worth it. Our trade has
tripled in the last few years. Without regulation, we’ll kill the Calanques,” he
are unhappy though. In February, a flotilla of fishing boats and other craft
blocked access to the port of Marseille in a demonstration against the then-drafted
plan. The show of force partially succeeded because the authorities agreed to
exclude from the park the four Frioul islands, just off Marseille, which are hugely
popular with sea-goers. As a result, the focus of the park shifted west,
towards Cassis – and now it is the Cassidains who are complaining. They worry if they will be able to keep
fishing, diving and hunting, and they fear for the future of their beloved cabanons – the traditional creek-side
cabins which they use for summer excursions and long liquid lunches.
Debates aside, the park will preserve what visitors are
coming to enjoy: the naked beauty of the limestone hills and the soft allure of
The simplest way to visit the Calanques is
by boat from Cassis. If you come by car, you must leave it in a carpark above
the town and take a shuttle down the hill as the port is delightfully free of
traffic. Trips along the coast leave every half hour or so, and take in three,
five or eight calanques (creeks). Prices
are not cheap, ranging from 16 to 24 euros for a one to two hour trip. It is
frustrating not being able to disembark, but the views are fantastic. Beach
access and fishing can be done with a private boat charter. If you wish to
visit by land, you can hire a private boat in Cassis or Marseille or hike in on
the trails out of Cassis. But bear in mind that from June to September, access
is severely limited by local authorities because of the risk of fire. Camping
overnight is prohibited.