11 AUG 2017: It was high summer and the Mediterranean beckoned, as it does to all those south-bound boaters negotiating the fast-moving Rhone River as it approaches its mouth.  For some unknown reason, the French have allowed this wide estuary to become silted up, so boats must pass through a lock into the wide harbour of Port St. Louis before reaching the ocean.  This, in torrential rain, we did, to be greeted by a genial harbourmaster and to find a well-run marina in which to spend several days. 

Port St. Louis is a plain little town but, with its markets and grocery store near the marina, convenient for boaters.   It also lies on the edge of France’s flat Camargue region, so once our chores were done it was off on our bikes to enjoy a little ‘off-boat’ time.  With picnics packed we rode back along the river path or headed south to Napoleon Beach, seeing many of the features for which this region is famous: white ponies, black bulls, the local cowboys, flamingoes and other birdlife and, of course, mountains of salt which is exported all over the world.
 
When it was time to leave we made our way through the waterways that lead out into the Mediterranean with the town of Martigues our first destination.  Initially this route is very unattractive as it passes the largest petroleum refinery in France which dominates the landscape for many miles.  Once in pretty Martigues, however, this industrial site lies behind one and the little town is waiting to be enjoyed.  With its canals bordered by quaint houses and flower-bedecked bridges and patios, this town is sometimes known as ‘little Venice’ and as such has been a favourite destinations for artists.  The ‘favourite son’ here is Felix Ziem (1821-1911), so it’s no surprise to discover there is a Musee Ziem in the village containing his works and those of his contemporaries which we found to be pleasant place to while away an hour or so.
 
But soon Marseille was plugged into our chart plotter and we were out into the Mediterranean ‘proper’ so to speak.   Readers who have been following the story of our journeys may remember that our boat is now without its mast.  It was left in a marina in the Netherlands to enable us to pass through the canals and rivers of Belgium and France where fixed bridges do not allow passage of sailboats complete with masts.  Sans mast our boat is no longer as seaworthy as we would like for ocean passages and it is for this reason that our sortie into the Med was going to be fairly short and confined to a few coastal hops in settled weather only.  
 
But what better ‘coastal hop’ than a visit to Marseille?  Oh yes, it has the reputation of being a ‘rough town’; it has seen many power changes and been a refuge for sailors for thousands of years.  Originally a Greek settlement, founded in the 7th century BCE (then called Massilia) it was seized by the Romans about two thousands years ago and thence became the ‘Gateway to the West’ for trade from the East.  Today its importance is no less; it is France’s largest port and second-largest city with links to ports all around the Mediterranean.
 
Today its vast inner harbour is full of pleasure boats, no doubt drawing boat owners from many parts of southern France to its facilities.  Because it looked so crowded, we decided to stay out on the Frioul Islands in the Bay of Marseille - an archipelago of four arid, sun-bleached islands whose surrounding clear waters act as a magnet to boaters from the busy city. Here one can anchor and enjoy some solitude and swimming, or tie-up in the harbour.  We did both, relaxing and soaking up some sun and sea first, then moving into the harbour where we could catch the regular ferry into Marseille.
 
The short ferry ride into the nearby city passes one of the Frioul islands that is home to the Chateau d’If.  ‘Chateau’ sound welcoming … a five star hotel maybe?  Well not this fortress chateau which has been a prison both in fact and in fiction.  It was a prison in reality for nearly four hundred years and Alexander Dumas used it to ‘imprison’ his fictional Count of Monte Cristo and others.  My guidebook also tells me that the island was briefly home to the first rhinoceros ever to set foot in Europe.  He was a gift for the pope, he was the subject of a woodcut by Albrecht Durer but then he died before reaching Rome.  Poor thing, can’t have been much fun.  Boat trips to this island fortress and the other Frioul Islands are available from the Quai des Belges in the heart of Marseilles.
 
This Quai is also home to Marseille’s famous fish market and the harbour is surrounded by restaurants offering the city’s signature dish: bouillabaisse.  From there it’s a short walk along La Canebiere (or ‘cannabis walk’, so called because it stretches from former hemp fields to the port where the hemp was made into rope for boats) to the Tourist Office which, of course, offers maps and information on the city’s many fine museums, churches and other attractions to be found here.
 
Aware of the city’s size, we decided to take the ‘hop-on-hop-off’ bus in order to get our bearings.  We were pleased that we did because the route included the journey up up up winding streets to the Basilique de Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde, a walk we were unlikely to have achieved on foot in the sun.  This 19th century Neo-Byzantine basilica dominates the city and contains decorations including mosaics and gilded statues and - of course - lots of tourists.  The views of the city and harbour alone are worth the trip.
 
As well as the bus ride we visited several museums and found a quiet square or two in which to enjoy patio lunches.  A visitor could easily pass many days here, but after just three we were on our way as we had a date with friends from Canada along the coast in Cassis.
 
Between Marseille and Cassis are the famous Calanques - deep, cliff-lined inlets that are a draw for both boaters and drivers along this coast.  Here visitors will find beautiful views, small sandy beaches and beach-side restaurants.  Again boat trips are available from Marseilles harbour or, from Cassis, one can walk along the cliffs.
 
Cassis itself is a delight.   Not only did we find it to be so, but many artists before us have been drawn here: Derain, Dufy, Matisse, Signac and even Winston Churchill.  Its present-day charm lies in the fact that, unlike many other Riviera harbours, it is too small for today’s mega-yachts so it has retained its quaint fishing-village atmosphere.  Not too small for us, however. We where soon tied up and, with a bottle of ‘bubbles’ in the fridge, awaiting our friends’ arrival.  After lunch together they treated us to a tour of the area by car  … when it was easy to see why they had chosen this lovely place as a home for their retirement.
 
Cassis was to be the final destination of our short Med cruise.  As we headed back towards the mouth of the Rhone we agreed it had been worth it, even though the passage south through the French canals with their hundreds of locks had proved to be something of a challenge at times.  Little did we know that worse was to come on our trip north.  But that’s a story for next time.  Mustn’t end on a negative note … the sparkling Mediterranean, Martigues, Marseilles and Cassis had provided a wonderful vacation.

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Ann Wallace

Ann Wallace is living a writer's dream currently writing of her adventures as she and her husband sail their boat around Europe.

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