One of the most seductive resorts on the Provence coast, Cassis boasts a stunning location, a lovely harbour, a sprinkling of beaches, exceptional wines and, despite the crowds in summer, an intimate, small-town feel.
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Roughly 25 km / 15.5 miles south-east of Marseille, the harbour of Cassis snuggles at the bottom of a steep bowl of land surrounded by lush vines and pine trees. On the south-western side of the town, towards Marseille, several calanques are within easy striking distance.
To the south-east, the town is dominated by the red and rugged Cap Canaille, at 394 metres / 1293 feet one of the highest cliffs in Europe, while the route des Crêtes between Cassis and La Ciotat counts among the most scenic drives in Southern Provence. Cassis from this vantage point is pictured below. Photograph by G. Scicluna for L'Office de Tourisme, Cassis.
While events take place in Cassis throughout the year, several diary dates are worth bearing in mind if you are planning a trip outside the high season.
In mid-May there's a wine festival called Cassis Fête son Vin and, for ten days at the end of June, the Fêtes de la Mer feature a number of sea-themed celebrations.
These are likely to include marine jousting, folk dancing, boat races and a regatta, a procession and a sardinade (sardine feast).
Towards the end of September, top chefs descend on the town as part of Les Vendanges Étoilées (The Starry Grape Harvest), a gastronomic week in honour of Cassis' food and, of course, its wines.
A THUMBNAIL HISTORY
There's evidence to suggest that Cassis was settled as early as 600 BC, around the same time as Marseille. Ligures, Greeks and Romans all passed through there, thriving on an economy based on fishing, trade with North Africa and the Middle East and the limestone in the nearby calanque of Port Miou.
During successive waves of barbarian invasions, the population took refuge in the Castrum de Carsisis, a mighty rectangular castle of 4,850 square metres / 52,200 square feet perched high on a cliff overlooking the port. In the 13th century, it became the property of the Seigneur des Baux de Provence.
In the 17th century, Cassis began to develop again outside these ramparts, and the picturesque streets and squares in the lower part of the town around the port originate from this date.
It became renowned as a holiday resort at the end of the 19th century drawing such notable visitors as Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group (Woolf's sister, Vanessa Bell, described Cassis as "Bloomsbury on the Mediterranean").
Winston Churchill took painting lessons there in the 1920s: one of his efforts was Daybreak at Cassis (1920), pictured.
In fact many artists gravitated towards Cassis, including Paul Signac, Raoul Dufy, Adolphe Montecelli, Félix Ziem, Joseph Garibaldi and Louis Audibert, Churchill's painting tutor. Napoleon Bonaparte and Leon Trotsky both popped by too, with rather different intentions.
Frédéric Mistral, the Nobel Prize-winning author and defender of provençal language and traditions, also took a great fancy to Cassis, even though he was not a native of the town (he was born and died in Maillane, near Saint Rémy de Provence).
The writer famously declared, in provençal, "Qu'a vist Paris, se noun a vist Cassis, pou dire, ‘n'ai rèn vist'." "He who has seen Paris but not Cassis can say, ‘I haven't seen anything'." Photograph below of Cassis harbour and Cap Canaille by Jean-Christophe Benoist for Wikimedia Commons.
Mistral wrote an epic poem, Calendal, about an anchovy fisherman from Cassis called Calendal (this name is the provençal equivalent of Noël), who falls in love with a princess and performs 12 heroic, Herculean tasks to win her hand.
It ended happily every after, you'll be pleased to hear, and the name Calendal can be found on streets and businesses - even the boules court - all over Cassis.
Another key visitor to Cassis was Jerome Hill, an American film-maker, artist and heir to the fortune of James J. Hill, the "Empire Builder", who created the Great Northern Railroad in North America.
Jerome discovered Cassis in the late 1930s and in 1967 set up the Camargo Foundation, near the Plage de Bestouan. It offered fellowships to - mainly American - artists and academics visiting Cassis each year. The recession forced the Foundation temporarily to suspend this programme in 2011, but it resumed in the autumn of 2014 with seven new Fellows in Residence.
Meanwhile the complex, with its open-air Greek theatre, beautiful gardens, library and conference room, continues to host cultural events throughout the year. Website for the Camargo Foundation
WHAT TO SEE
Most visitors to Cassis will make a beeline first for the colourful harbour, where you can pick up a boat tour to the calanques, take the petit train touristique (little tourist train) to the Presqu'Ile (Peninsula) on the south-west of the town or patronise one of the inviting bars and restaurants lining the sun-drenched (and sometimes windswept) quai Jean-Jacques Barthélémy and the quai des Baux.
Because of its location, there is, unusually, no busy main road running right along the coast at Cassis, which makes strolling, eating and drinking there an exceptionally pleasant experience.
Officially the best place in Cassis to catch some rays is at the junction of these two quays. Here you will find the "cheminée du Roi René" ("King René's fireplace") - a provençal term for the warmest and sunniest spot in any town, as the row of benches here testifies.
A small fish market takes place on the harbour front in the mornings and, on the quai Barthélémy, the Prud'homie de Pêche (Fisheries Tribunal) is a reminder of the fishing community's fight for independence from their rivals in Marseille.
In a niche to the right of the door is a 17th century wooden statue of Saint Peter, the patron saint of fishers, which is brought out in a ceremonial procession on the last Sunday of June to celebrate his feast day, La Fête de la Saint Pierre.
On the other side of the central car-park is the town's west-facing main beach, the Plage de la Grande Mer. The Office de Tourisme (Tourist Office) is also on the harbour, at the beginning of the quai des Moulins.
Behind it stands a statue (pictured) of Mistral's lovelorn anchovy fisherman, Calendal, by the Avignon sculptor Jean-Loup Bouvier.
Made of Cassis stone and erected in 2000, it replaces an earlier statue from the 1930s which was destroyed during the Second World War.
The harbour is dominated by the castle which has, behind it, a curious oriental-style 20th century villa, La Villa Mauresque.
The castle was recently converted into a luxury B&B, Le Château de Cassis. and is not open to the public. However it's planned to introduce guided tours so it's worth checking there if these are up and running by the time you visit.
Many tourists don't venture far beyond the seafront and the calanques, but it would be a great pity to visit Cassis without taking an hour or two to wander through its maze of back-streets with their charming fishermen's houses and smart bourgeois mansions.
Most of the town's attractions are clustered around the place de la République and the adjacent place Baragnon just a few steps from the harbour. Here you will find two fountains, the 18th century Fontaine des Quatre Nations and 19th century Fontaine Baragnon, around which a provençal food market bustles every Wednesday and Friday morning (it's pictured here in early spring: note the silhouette of the castle in the background).
Just off the place Baragnon is a leafy jardin public, or park. On your left as you enter it is the Musée d'Arts and Traditions Populaires (Museum of Arts and Popular Traditions), also known as La Maison de Cassis and housed in an 18th century former presbytery (the church attached to it was vulnerable to flooding and destroyed in 1894).
Even if you've been round similarly named museums in other towns, this one is well worth a visit.
Entrance is free and, if you speak French, you might consider paying the small fee for a very enthusiastic and informative guided tour. If you don't, you'll find that much of the signage is in English.
As well as the usual santons and folk costumes, the Musée d'Arts and Traditions Populaires has a room dedicated to provençal painters. One of them, Marius Guindon, donated 47 works by himself, his wife Eugénie and others in 1910 and they form the core of this collection, unusually extensive for a small-town museum.
The archaeology room on the ground floor is interesting too. Cassis' long history of maritime trading, combined with its treacherously deep waters, means that this stretch of coast is peppered with wrecks which have been a rich source of well-preserved amphorae (wine or oil jars), coins and jewellery. You will also find more fragmented pottery and mosaics from terrestrial digs and a large Roman stele.
The permanent exhibits rotate due to lack of gallery space (there are just three rooms). In addition, several times a year, the Musée d'Arts and Traditions Populaires hosts a temporary exhibition.
Just across the park from the museum, the Mairie, or Town Hall is housed in a severe but lovely 17th century hôtel particulier. The high-water mark on the garden wall on your right as you enter recalls that, in 1858, the lower areas of Cassis were flooded by up to two metres.
Inside the Mairie you can see vestiges of a mediaeval kitchen under a glass floor on the right as you enter. A Grand Siècle staircase sweeps up to the first floor where a reception room boasts an ornate Renaissance fireplace and decorated ceiling.
As you leave the park area, two slightly wider streets running parallel to the harbour front, the rue Adolphe Thiers and the rue Docteur Séverin Icard, are lined withelegant bourgeois houses.
They both lead uphill to the place Saint Michel, pictured, the location of Cassis' main church which built on this high ground a little outside the centre in 1859, the year after the great flood.
Descending back towards the port, you will pass through narrower, winding streets formerly inhabited by humbler residents. Note the 17th century communal oven on the corner of the rue du Four and the rue Thérèse Rastit
HOW TO GET TO AND FROM CASSIS
The only real downside of Cassis is that its geographical location makes it rather tricky to get to - though this may also help deter the crowds, relatively speaking.
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Cassis is around 25 km / 15.5 miles from Marseille and you can take two different routes to drive there.
One, slightly longer but faster, goes along the A50 (part of this is a toll motorway). The other, shorter but more winding and much more picturesque, goes across the Gineste pass and the plateau of Carpiagne: the same route as the Marseille-Cassis foot race.
From the east, Cassis is around 44 km / 27 miles from Toulon and can be reached via the A50 (part of this is a toll motorway). Here, too, there is a scenic alternative, the very dramatic route des Crêtes, along the coast and across Cap Canaille, between La Ciotat and Cassis.
From here two shuttle bus routes operate, one to the Peninsula and one to the centre of town. Click on the map to enlarge the image. And click here for the park-and-ride shuttle bus timetables.
By rail: There is a fast train service from Marseille and Toulon. The journey time in each direction is about 30 minutes. Click here for the train timetable Marseille-Toulon. Select timetable no.1 (Marseille-Toulon) from the drop-down menu at the top of the page.
However, Cassis train station is 3 km / 1.9 miles from the harbour and a good 40 minute walk along a busy main road downhill into town - and uphill back, of course. If this does not appeal, a list of taxi numbers is posted in the station opposite the ticket office (there's a small bar-restaurant opposite the station for you to wait in). Or try pre-booking with Les Taxis Cassidains, tel (+33) 4 42 01 78 96.
A local bus, La Marcouline, runs between Cassis station and the casino, which is just behind the park in the centre of town.
Note that this is not an official rail shuttle service and does not necessarily connect with the train timetable. Click here for the bus timetable between Cassis train station and Cassis centre.
By bus: From Marseille to Cassis, you have the choice of two buses, the M6 and the M8. Both leave from Castellane-Prado in Marseille.
Both take about the same time (about 40-50 minutes, depending on traffic and the time of day), but the M8 bus is the better choice as the service is more frequent than the M6 and it goes across the picturesque Gineste Pass rather than along the motorway.
The regional bus company Cartreize runs a service between Aubagne and Cassis. There is currently no direct bus from Aix en Provence to Cassis and you will have to change in either Marseille or Aubagne.
As mentioned above, the main food market is on Wednesday and Friday mornings on the place Barganon. A new farmers' market specialising in quality regional produce is held on Saturday mornings on the place Clémenceau.
In July and August there are two additional evening markets: a craft market on the place Baragnon et place Clémenceau and an artists' market on the quai Calendal et quai Barthélemy.
The Tourist Office has telephone numbers for local taxi firms, the rota for late-night pharmacies and details of last-minute hotel availability.
It also has a list of emergency numbers, which include the following:
Medical (this also covers the SAMU, which deals with serious and specialised medical emergencies): 15
La Timone Hospital, Marseille: (+33) 4 91 38 00 00
La Ciotat Hospital: (+33) 4 42 08 76 01
Aubagne Hospital: (+33) 4 42 84 70 78
Cassis police station: (+33) 4 42 01 17 17
Cassis gendarmerie: (+33) 4 42 01 90 22
Fire brigade (the firemen, or sapeurs pompiers, also provide ambulances for general medical emergencies): 18
Cassis fire brigade: (+33) 4 42 01 99 30
Any emergency services when calling from a mobile phone (cell phone): 112
Where to eat and drink: Restaurants along the harbour front charge a premium for their location and there are few bargain meals to be had here. But you can dine very well, for a price, at Chez Gilbert, a signatory to the Bouillabaisse Charter whose select members guarantee that you'll be eating the genuine article. Chez Gilbert, 19 quai des Baux, 13260 Cassis. Tel: (+33) 4 42 01 71 36.
Run by the same family for five generations, La Poissonnerie is a fishmonger with a terrace restaurant attached and serves sea-fresh catch of the day with simple, traditional accompaniments. La Poissonnerie, 6 quai Barthélémy, 13260 Cassis. Tel: (+33) 4 42 01 71 56. Read a full review of La Poissonnerie.
Locals also recommend Romano further along the harbour front at 15 quai Barthélémy, 13260 Cassis. Tel: (+33) 4 42 01 08 16.
Slightly away from the main harbour area, in a superb location overlooking the sea and Cap Canaille, La Villa Madie (pictured) is the town's only Michelin-starred restaurant.
La Villa Madie, avenue du Revestel, 13260 Cassis. Tel: (+33) 4 96 18 00 00. Read a full review of La Villa Madie. And click here for our full list of Michelin-starred restaurants in Provence.
If the view is unimportant to you, you will find that meals are cheaper in the back-streets running parallel to the port.
Here, a nice place for a drink is Le Chai Cassidain, a cosy family-run wine-bar which serves local wines by the glass and offers free home-made snacks at apéritif hour. Le Chai Cassidain, 6 rue Docteur Séverin Icard, 13260 Cassis. Tel: (+33) 4 42 01 99 80.