Once an industrial port, La Ciotat has brilliantly reinvented itself as a tourist destination. Today it's one of the liveliest and least spoiled resorts along this stretch of the coast.
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In the 20th century La Ciotat was one of the most important shipbuilding centres on the Mediterranean until its naval shipyards closed down in the 1980s. It must have been terribly tough for the town to lose such a major source of employment. But fortunately it turns out that La Ciotat has quite a bit to offer in terms of holiday attractions.
These include a fine spread of easily accessible beaches, two small but dramatic calanques, a stunning coastline, a wide range of water sports facilities, a beautiful botanical garden and an attractive old port and old town.
In cultural terms, it boasts a long cinematic heritage and some lively events throughout the year. Even the shipyards have been resurrected as a maintenance and repair centre for luxury yachts and their cranes remain a distinctive feature of the skyline.
La Ciotat has also made a particular effort to welcome disabled visitors, with specially adapted beaches, parking areas and wheelchair lanes on some pavement, and is one of the very few towns in Provence to have been awarded the French Government's official Tourisme et Handicaps label. Click here to find out about these facilities (in French only).
This is a general introduction to La Ciotat. Click here to read our detailled guides to its beaches and calanques, the magnificent route des Crêtes that links it to neighbouring Cassis and the legacy of film-making in the city.
WHAT TO SEE
Generously lined with bars and restaurants, the Vieux Port, or Old Port, is a good place to start exploring. There's a large farmers' and artisans' market here on Sunday mornings, pictured (on Tuesday mornings the market is held on the place Evariste Gras, five minutes' walk from the port).
On the corner of the quai Ganteaume and the boulevard Anatole France, right opposite the Tourist Office, the city museum, the Musée Ciotaden, is housed in the rather splendid, if dilapidated former town hall which is undergoing major renovation work in 2014 (it remains open to the public).
Run by local enthusiasts, its 15 rooms include a very grand reception room overlooking the port. Covering the complete history of the town, they house an gloriously eclectic collection of Roman amphorae, old bicycles, farming implements, furniture and model ships, among other things - and two carved chairs from Bridgewater town hall (La Ciotat and Bridgewater in England are twinned). One room is devoted to the Lumière Brothers and the birth of cinema.
Detailed leaflets in English and other European languages help bring the stories and exhibits alive. Website for the Musée Ciotaden
A little further along the quai Ganteaume, the large, simple sober 17th century church of Notre Dame de l'Assomption was built of pink limestone from La Couronne. Restored in the 1970s, it contains some contemporary frescos by the local artist Gilbert Ganteaume.
Rising up behind the church, the pedestrianised Old Town is pleasant to wander through. The long rue des Poilus is the main shopping hub and the place Sadi Carnot, pictured, with its central fountain and 100 year old magnolia tree is one of the prettiest squares.
Some grand old houses and porticos on the rue Adolph Abeille and the rue des Poilus bear witness to La Ciotat's prosperous shipping heyday.
The family-oriented sandy beaches are on this side of town, along the boulevards Anatole France and Georges Clemenceau, as are most of the film-related sights.
The 17th century Chapelle des Pénitents Bleus, with its distinctive octagonal bell tower, hosts temporary exhibitions, often with a cinematic theme, and open-air dances are held in summer on the large square between it and the seafront promenade.
The landscape gets craggier across the other side of the Old Port to the south of the centre, which is dominated by the jagged Bec de l'Aigle (Eagle's Beak) rock rising 155 metres / 508 feet over La Ciotat's two red calanques with their small pebbly beaches. Behind them the route des Crêtes winds over the hills and along the coast towards Cassis.
One of the loveliest spots in town is here too. Near the Petit Mugel beach and calanque, the gorgeous gardens of the Parc du Mugel enjoy an exceptional microclimate, sheltered by the Eagle's Beak from the fierce north-west Mistral that sweeps all through this part of Provence.
And the bright pink-red local rock, known as poudingue, is hard and impermeable; it enables rain water to be collected and channelled into cisterns, so that even thirsty plants can thrive in the midsummer heat. It's a perfect spot for people to do just the same.
The sprawling 12 hectare / 30 acre park includes an incredible variety of plants and shrubs, many of them rarely seen in this part of Provence, with palm and orange groves, a cactus patch, areas devoted to exotica such as bird of paradise plants, bamboo, cork oak, chestnut trees and aromatic herbs.
The gardens are, attractively, left a little wild, with lots of winding steps and terraces to wander around (it can be visited on foot only), and shady play areas and picnic spots (also, importantly, toilets). At the far end is a belvedere with commanding views.
Guided tours are available by prior request at the Tourist Office and information is also available from La Maison du bec de l'aigle. This building within the park houses L'Atelier Bleu, an environment protection agency which organises courses for children and adults during the summer.
Admission is free and the park remains open all year round (8am-8pm from April to September and 9am-6pm from October to March), though it may close on days of very high winds. Smoking is not permitted.
Opposite the calanques, L'Ile Verte or Green Island is, as the name suggests, the only - or at least one of the very few - wooded islands along this strip of the coast, with a very different ecosystem from the arid Riou or Frioul Islands. Uninhabited - by humans, at least - it's served by a boat shuttle between April and October only.
Two other attractions are on this side of La Ciotat. About 450 metres / 500 yards along a footpath leading off to the left at the beginning of the chemin du Sémaphore, is Notre Dame de la Garde on a hill offering more stupenous views.
This little chapel, pictured, is far smaller than its more famous namesake in Marseille but, like it and in fact like many chapels dotted along the coast, is packed with marine-themed ex voto offerings from sailors giving thanks for returning safe home. It's open in summer only: check with the Tourist Office for opening times.
Further up the hill on the same road is the Villa Michel Simon, a ramshackle provencal villa once inhabited by the equally ramshackle actor.
La Ciotat also claims to be the birthplace of pétanque, at least the version played today. The story has it that, in 1907 (some accounts claim 1910), a former boules champion named Jules Lenoir was prevented by chronic rheumatism from playing the game, which at the time involved running with the ball before pitching it.
He and his colleagues invented a new rule to enable Lenoir to join in. According to it, all the players remain standing or seated in a fixed position. The name pétanque derives from the provençal phrase pèd tanca, meaning "anchored feet".
Marked with a plaque, this historic spot is about a kilometre / two thirds of a mile from the Vieux Port at the Boulodrome Jules Lenoir, impasse de la Pétanque and the Association Jules Lenoir in La Ciotat meets regularly to celebrate the memory. Click here to read our full guide to pétanque in Provence
La Ciotat hasn't forgotten its sea-faring connection. Among the many nautical sports on offer in La Ciotat are canoeing and kayaking, kite-surfing, stand-up paddle, scuba diving, angling and underwater fishing and traditional provençal marine jousting.
Les Nauticales, a major sailing and motor boat show, takes place in the early spring: the 2014 dates are 15-23 March. Website for Les Nauticales
In May La Fête du Nautisme features marine-themed sporting events for all the family while in the same month the Acampado dei Vieio Careno (the name is in provençal, not French) brings together a fleet of classic boats and tall ships on the Old Port with traditional sea shanties, dances and music.
Provence abounds with festivals, but each October La Ciotat stages one that can genuinely claim to be unique: Il était une fois 1720 (Once Upon a Time in 1720).
In that year, brought to Marseille by a merchant ship arriving from the Levant, the bubonic plague swept through Provence killing around 100,000 people. (You can see a short film about it at the Musée Regards de Provence in Marseille - this museum is housed in a former disinfection station set up to protect the area from such disasters.)
La Ciotat was one of the few towns to escape, thanks to the determination of people of the town, who barricaded the gates against contagious outsiders. Thus plague-free, the town was able to receive supplies from merchant ships which refused to enter Marseille and to pass food over the walls to people from surrounding villages.
Il était une fois 1720 celebrates all this with gusto. The festival is a relatively new idea (the first one was held in 2002) but it seems to have gathered momentum and today over 1,000 local men, women and children dress up as peasants, pirates, fishermen, bourgeois ladies and gentlemen, serving wenches and beggars to re-enact scenes from the past.
Expect barbecues, stalls selling crafts with a vaguely 18th century theme, fireworks, parades and plenty of lusty pirate battles. The dates of this festival in 2014 are 17-19 October.
HOW TO GET TO AND FROM LA CIOTAT
By car: La Ciotat is around 34 km / 21 miles from Marseille along the A50 (part of this is a toll motorway). Alternatively you can take a very slightly longer but much more spectacular route, the D559, across the Gineste pass and the plateau of Carpiagne (the same route as the Marseille-Cassis foot race) as far as Cassis, and from there the even more stunning route des Crêtes, the D141.
From the east, La Ciotat is around 40 km / 25 miles from Toulon and can be reached via the A50 (part of this is a toll motorway).
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By rail: There is a fast train service to La Ciotat from Marseille and Toulon. The journey time in each direction is about 30 minutes. Click here for the train timetable Marseille-Toulon via La Ciotat. Select timetable no.1 (Marseille-Toulon) from the drop-down menu at the top of the page.
You'll arrive at the famous train station immortalised by the Lumière Brothers in their pioneering 1895 short L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat (The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station). Note however that the station is 4.5 km / 3 miles from the Old Port. Local bus no.40 connects the train station to the centre of town.
By bus: The bus station (gare routière) is, by contrast, next to the Tourist Office right in the heart of La Ciotat.
The local bus company Ciotabus connects the train station to different parts of the town and the nearby town of Ceyreste. Another company, La Marcouline, connects La Ciotat with Cassis and other nearby towns.