The route des Crêtes takes you on a magnificent ride between Cassis and La Ciotat, with 360 degree views over some of the most superb scenery in Provence all along the way.
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This 15 km / 9 mile stretch of road will take about half an hour by car and about an hour by bicycle, if you don't stop. But we can guarantee that you will definitely want to stop.
By the way, "route des Crêtes" is a generic term meaning "road across the crests": there are other routes of the same name elsewhere in France, for example in the Vosges mountains in Eastern France and in the Gorges du Verdon.
As you drive or cycle along the route des Crêtes, you'll see, to the west, Cassis and the Soubeyran coastal cliffs including the dramatic Cap Canaille, a monumental 394 metre / 1,293 foot high slab of red-ochre rock that's the highest in France.
In the distance, pictured, is the lacy fringe of calanques along the coast towards Marseille and a scattering of islands, with the glittering Mediterranean as the ever-present backdrop.
To the east, you'll enjoy open panoramic vistas towards La Ciotat across rugged limestone mountains and Provence's fragrant garrigue vegetation, with its pine trees, wild rosemary and thyme, Mediterranean oak and abundance of wild flowers in the spring.
The sun can be harsh and intense on the top of the crest in the middle of the day in high summer and perhaps the loveliest time to go along this route at this time of year is in the early morning or at dusk, when the temperature is milder and the light softer.
This applies especially to cyclists, who will find the route challenging, with a total climb of around 380 metres / 1250 feet and some stretches at a 30% gradient, especially towards Cassis. The ride by bike is considerably easier if you start out from La Ciotat.
This route des Crêtes is well-maintained, not too winding or difficult to drive along and comfortably wide enough for cars to pass another vehicle, which is just as well because you're unlikely to find yourself alone.
Fortunately the road is generously supplied with look-out points where you can pull over to take photos or have a picnic. You will see plenty of locals doing this (the parking areas get very crowded in summer months). It goes without saying that fires and barbecues are strictly prohibited. Note that there are no bars or cafés on this route.
It's also a good idea to bring a sweater or fleece, even on warm days, as it can get very windy on the top of the ridge.
And, if you have children or animals with you, keep a close eye on them at all times, as there are often no barriers between you and some very steep drops.
Hiking trails, marked and unmarked, lead off the road at a number of parking areas, and you can leave your vehicle for a short stroll or longer ramble (be sure to lock your bike or car as thefts and break-ins are endemic at beauty spots throughout Provence).
Bring bottled water, sun-block and trainers or hiking shoes if you intend to do this, as all the paths are rugged and rocky.
To find it starting in Cassis, take the route Pierre Imbert (D559) as if going towards Junction 8 on the A50 motorway. The route des Crêtes turns south, off the D559, at a point 1.6 km /1 mile from the town centre.
If starting in La Ciotat, take the avenue Louis Crozet going northwards from the back of the central Post Office. In both cases, the way should be clearly signposted "Route des Crêtes".
If you wish to use a map, we recommend the large-scale IGN Top 25 3245 ET Aubagne, La Ciotat, Massif de la Sainte Baume.
Like other rural areas in Southern Provence, the route des Crêtes is closed to traffic (and hikers) on days of very strong wind and / or when the fire risk is high, as can happen frequently in summer. Road signs as you approach it from either La Ciotat or Cassis will let you know if it is open.
The road barriers can come down suddenly during the day if the weather changes, so check the forecast if you are doing the route by car to avoid finding yourself trapped behind them (you should check the forecast anyway, of course).
The best place to do this is either on the Bouches du Rhône official helpline, tel (+33) 8 11 20 13 13, in English as well as French, or on the website of Météo France.
The level is set daily at 6pm for the following day. Pictured: the route des Crêtes at the top of the plateau.
If you wish to continue on from Cassis to Marseille, take the route de la Gineste (the D559) as an extension of this itinerary. Also leading over a mountain ridge, it's shorter than the motorway and is the backdrop for a celebrated race each year in October.
There are not as many parking places along this road as on the route des Crêtes, and it's not quite as spectacular (through still pretty lovely). But, if you want to spend the night in a stunning, remote location perfectly placed for hiking excursions into the calanques, the Hôtel du Joli Bois is well worth considering.
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