FRANCE: the Côte Bleue from Martigues to Marseilles
Between Martigues and Marseilles, the Côte Bleue boasts a succession of fishing harbours, small creeks and beaches, nestling against the Estaque chain.
So now to the Côte Bleue, a stretch of coastline from Martigues to the L'Estaque district of Marseilles, with its deep narrow creeks (calanques), old fishing harbours and sand and shingle beaches. Backing on to the Estaque chain, this listed and protected section of coastline nestles between the bay of Marseilles and the petrochemical industrial basin of Martigues. It kept itself very much to itself until the opening in 1915 of a railway line that is still in use today, with the famous little Côte Bleue train. The road hugs the coastline before launching into narrow hairpin bends that drop steeply down towards the sea. The high white limestone cliffs offer stunning views of the sparkling Mediterranean.
Unsuspected treasures lie in wait in the Bouches-du-Rhône region's second largest town, which is surrounded by oil refineries and cement works, with an impressive motorway viaduct looming on the horizon. And yet its alleys and old districts, its canals and brightly painted houses are heart-warming, as is its miraculously preserved "working-class" character. If you only have time for a quick visit, head straight for the Île, the historic centre of Martigues; there are numerous car parks nearby, and everything lies within a very small area: the Place Mirabeau with its beautiful bourgeois homes; the Quai Brescon with its stretch of canal, a veritable little "Provençal Venice" immortalised by Delacroix, Corot and Dufy; the Baroque façade of St-Madeleine's church; the maze of little streets formed by the rue de la Fraternité, rue Capoulière, rue des Cordonniers and rue Eugène-Pelletan.
Behind the tourist information office, you can see the last "calen" fishermen (a calen is a type of net) who work on the banks of the Caronte channel. Towed by two internal combustion engines, in summer the calens catch mullet whose eggs, once pressed and smoked, make the delicious poutargue.
Head south out of Martigues, take the D5 towards Carry-le-Rouet, then turn right onto the D49 towards Carro.
Carro, a small port that dates back to antiquity and last stronghold of the Côte Bleue fishermen, remains the western Mediterranean's second biggest port for old-style tuna fishing. We immediately plunge into the unique atmosphere of the fish market which attracts professionals, the young and the not so young, lazy cats and aggressive seagulls. This little auction sells the catch of about twenty boats and provides a living for some forty-five families.
Next stop is La Couronne, a beauty spot that is very popular with the people of Marseilles, drawn here by its beautiful and easily accessible beaches. Stop off at Verdon beach from whose western end you can see the Cap Couronne lighthouse on Pointe Riche and, beyond, the bay of Marseilles as far as Cap Croisette. Cap Couronne abounds in molasse quarries; this pinkish beige stone has been exploited since antiquity, and it was from here that the Romans took what they needed to build the old port, the remains of which can be seen next to the Bourse (stock exchange).
Still following the coastline, a little string of deserted campsites and empty caravans leads to Tamaris beach and, more particularly, to Sainte-Croix beach which backs on to a pine wood and each year impatiently awaits it Blue Flag - a rare honour in this area.
The D49 follows the relatively preserved coastline as far as Sausset-les-Pins with its four mixed sand and shingle beaches. Here, seaside-resort tourism has permanently replaced tuna fishing, notably the so-called "seinche" ceremony when all the villagers would come together each year to encircle the tuna with a round net. The D49 heads away from the shore to cross the Estaque chain.
A former fishing village and now a rather chic seaside resort, Carry-le-Rouet is set in a beautiful location at the foot of wooded slopes. Inviting terraces of bars and restaurants line the quays of the marina, and there is a superb coastal walk which can be reached from the end of the P.-Maleville quay (on the right facing the harbour). It begins on a rocky spit with a red and white signal station - not unlike the Côte de Granit Rose in Brittany - and you can enjoy the view of the bay of Marseilles as you make your way along a route equipped with railings, benches, viewpoints and explanatory panels on cicadas, wall lizards and Aleppo pines.
Sea urchins and "oursinade" sea-urchin festivals: stock up on iodine!
There are Périgord truffles, Charolais beef and Carry-le-Rouet sea urchins, which are said to be beyond compare. Or at least there were; these echinoderms have suffered from the destruction of their favourite habitat, the great kelp beds. Today, these "sea chestnuts" can be gathered from 1st November to 30th March at the rate of four dozen per person, and must be over 5cm (2in) in size. However, it is forbidden to gather them using diving equipment.
If you want to make the most of this festive, popular and good-natured gathering, arrive early or you may have to park on the A55 motorway. Buy your platter of sea urchins from one of the fishermen and make yourself comfortable on a terrace in the sun - there are some lovely weekends in winter. Late risers will have to make do with a bit of jetty or a rock to sit on.
Just after Carry-le-Rouet, the D5 climbs sharply above the coastline and, just before broaching the descent, provides a superb view of the bay of Marseilles and the Frioul Islands but unfortunately it is not possible to stop. As you head towards Ensuès-la-Redonne, the road plunges inland where the mineral landscape, dotted with low vegetation and fire-damaged in places, is bathed in a magnificent light.
But caution is now the keyword as you have to concentrate on the sharp bends with an 18% gradient which lead to the calanques of Madrague-de-Gignac, La Redonne, Méjean, Les Figuières, Niolon and La Vesse, hollowed out of dolomitic rock that has been carved into peaks and needles.
Chicanes, dips, one-ways and limited visibility are all par for the course on these little dead-end roads. At the end, a sort of terrestrial, carnal and olfactory paradise awaits - huts, pointus (traditional Provençal boats), crystal-clear turquoise sea, dazzling limestone, and restaurants serving fish and shellfish fresh out of the water...
The bay of Marseilles
Just after the crossroads between the D48 and the D5, the bay of Marseilles appears in the background of the panorama. The gradual descent towards L'Estaque, overlooking the bay of Marseilles and La Joliette basin, is enchanting, despite the old quarries and warehouses. Hazy and pink, the vast bay surrounded by hills appears to us as it must have appeared to the Phocaeans who landed, full of wonder, on these shores 2,600 years ago.
Martigues: ©F. Guiziou / hemis.fr
Calanque of Niolon: ©G. Labriet / Photononstop
Bay of Marseilles: ©B. Gardel / hemis.fr