Cassis, France — a charming village by the sea
“Qu’a vist Paris, se noun a vist Cassis, pou dire: n’ai rèn vist.”
“He who has seen Paris and who has not seen Cassis can say … I have seen nothing.” Frédéric Mistral (1830 – 1914), beloved Provençal poet and Nobel Prize laureate
How could anyone make such a bold statement about Cassis, France, a medieval village in Provence?
After just a few hours in this village on the Mediterranean coast, I began to understand.
I always feel a bit sad on the last day of a trip. I think about how quickly the time has passed and often feel that I’ve been so busy I didn’t really get to embrace each moment enough. The morning of our last full day in Provence was no different. I would liked to have spent a little more time in our lovely accommodations at Hotel Plage Saint-Jean and walk again along the promenade of La Ciotat and gaze at the Mediterranean in its wild and wintry beauty. But we had plans for the day and what wonderful plans they turned out to be.
I enjoyed the luscious landscapes and vineyards as we steered the turns on the 13 kilometer drive from La Ciotat. Then I caught sight of Cassis tucked inside the surrounding cliffs and hills by the harbor with the blue Mediterranean beyond. On Sunday morning, the village was quiet as we slowly navigated the streets heading toward the port.
4 hours in Cassis, France
This seaside village of 8,000 residents was one of the highlights of our Provence trip. In the summer, especially during August, the population of Cassis jumps to over 40,000 as it’s an extremely popular summer resort, particularly for French and other European vacationers. It’s the kind of place where you feel you belong when you first arrive. The beautiful location in the Parc National des Calanques, the picturesque waterfront, and the Mediterranean ambiance are captivating. Although spring and summer would bring many for the sunshine and beaches, even this cool, overcast day in December there had a rather balmy feeling.
Let’s go for a walk
We had only about 4 hours to spend in town which, like many Provençal villages, is best explored by foot. Starting our tour, we stood on the esplanade gazing at the beauty of the Mediterranean coastline bordered by one of the tallest sea cliffs in Europe, Cap Canaille.
Along the quai
The amphitheater of hills and cascading buildings surrounding the harbor with its bobbing fishing boats created a picturesque scene.
On most mornings, fishermen set up stalls along the quai to sell their fresh catches of the morning. Depending upon the season, they offer sea bream, red mullet, sole, turbot, squid, sea perch, conger eels, and monkfish (the last two being key ingredients of traditional Bouillabaisse for which the area is famous).
It wasn’t long before we got our first look at Château de Cassis, once a fortress protecting the town from invading forces. Set high on a cliff above the port, it dates from the 13th century and remained a military fortress until the late 1800s. It’s now a privately-owned 5-star hotel and an imposing presence from many vantage points in and around Cassis.
The town gets its name from the Roman “Carsicis Portus”, which means “crowned port”, referring to the striking stone peak that looks very much like a crown north of the village. It’s called Couronne de Charlemagne (the crown of Charlemagne).
Strolling the old town
During our time in Provence, a highlight in each place was strolling around the old town districts, each with their own character and history. I loved the narrow lanes of Cassis that went uphill from the harbor, some with shops and restaurants, others with the homes of the fishermen. I’d be happy getting lost in this maze of streets for hours.
Place Baragnon and the Hôtel de Ville
The squares of the village are lovely gathering places as well as the location of some of the town’s markets, special events, and monuments. At Place Baragnon are twice weekly (Wednesday and Friday mornings) markets offering items including food, flowers, clothing and jewelry. This Sunday was the final day of the annual Christmas market held on the square, and our final day of experiencing the Christmas traditions of Provence. The fountain Baragnon is an appropriate honor to the man that brought water from the Marseille channel to Cassis at the beginning of the 20th century. Water no longer had to be brought in from distant springs. You might also notice the gnarly-branched, leafless trees in some photos, such as the one bottom left, above. They are plane trees which are very common in Provence and are pruned dramtically for winter.
Adjacent to Place Baragnon is a public garden where the Mairie (Hôtel de Ville or Town Hall shown above) is located. It’s a listed historic monument built in 1626 which houses the offices of the mayor. We didn’t go inside, but enjoyed the exterior that has a plaque (just above the plant in the top right photo) on one of the walls to show the high water level of the devastating flood in 1858 that swamped the lower levels of Cassis up to two meters.
Napolean slept here!
I love coming across points of interest like this one — a building where Napoleon stayed briefly when inspecting his troops in Provence. The occasion is marked by a plaque and the street is named in his honor — Rue du General Bonaparte.
A scent of Cassis
Sometimes you just have to stop and smell the …. perfume. And we did exactly that at L’eau de Cassis Parfumeur Créateur, boutique and museum, a family-owned business creating fragrances since 1851.
They have two boutiques in Cassis (one which is also the museum), one in Marseille, and one in Grasse. The fragrances are created from the fresh flowers of Provence, including lavender for which the region is famous, but they also have many diverse and lovely perfumes, including Escapade a Cassis with a version for men. Mr. TWS doesn’t like to wear cologne, but he acknowledged that this one was quite nice. The ground coffee in the bottom right photo below is used to clear the nose between sniffs of the various perfumes, much like clearing the palate with crackers between tastes of wines.
Stopping in another shop, we saw some of the gorgeous Cassis white stone, a unique hard limestone (from local quarries first opened in 1753). I loved looking at the beautiful products, mostly sinks and decorative objects. The stone is often used in constructing buildings and monuments. I found it interesting that the base of the Statue of Liberty in New York, a gift to the United States from France, is made with Cassis stone. Other examples of its use are the docks of Marseille (and other Mediterranean ports) and the Church of St. Michel in Cassis.
A taste of Cassis
There are 12 wine estates in Cassis and we passed a few of the terraced vineyards sheltered by Cap Canaille on limestone hillsides during our morning drive from La Ciotat. The Cassis AOC ( Appellations d’Origine Controlee) created in 1936,was one of the first in France. Our introduction to the area’s red wines was by Laurent Jayne, proprietor of Domaine St. Louis Jayne, a family wine-making operation since 1893. At the Christmas market at Place Baragnon, Laurent was showcasing his 2013 Les Oratoires red wine (produced in very small quantities on the estate’s old vines) at the vineyard’s booth (as well as frying up sausages at another).
Although the reds and rosés of Cassis are known for excellence, its white wine is the real star of the region and accounts for 67% of Cassis wine production. It’s a crisp, light, elegant white wine that we enjoyed at lunch at La Vielle Auberge on the waterfront. Distribution is limited outside of Cassis, so be sure to enjoy it while visiting.
An interesting bit of Provence wine history is that in 1865, phylloxera (a grapevine pest) wiped out the grape growing in the region. Fortunately, mainly due to vine grafts provided by the United States, the region was able to recover.
Wine and food event tip: Les Vendanges Étoilées is a gourmet event during the harvest of September where wine growers, chefs, and enthusiasts come together for cooking demonstrations, wine tasting, and live entertainment.
The view couldn’t have been better from our table by a window overlooking the harbor at La Vielle Auberge on the Quai Barthélemy.
We loved the warm, comfortable ambiance and the hearty and delicious authentic regional food. A nice touch was the customary welcoming glass of Rosé we were served as soon as we were seated. Our entrees were accompanied by a lovely light Cassis white wine (paired with the moules gratinées below). Our lunch included soupe de poisson which was prepared at the table; fresh sea bass for two enjoyed by Mr. TWS and our companion (I had duck breast); and for dessert, delectable chocolate cake and hot apples with ice cream. The food, the wine, the view, and the service were excellent.
Our meal was a wonderful part of our introduction to Cassis, but soon it was time to make our way toward Marseille where we spent our final evening in Provence.
Next time in Cassis, France
Although I couldn’t possibly say that I’ve got in-depth knowledge about Cassis after such a short time, I can say that I know enough to want to return. These are among the things we’ll make an effort to do on a future visit.
- Take a boat to the Calanques (rocky inlets).
- Drive the Route des Crêtes atop Cap Canaille, a scenic ride between Cassis and La Ciotat, with panoramic views of the Mediterranean, Provençal countryside, and the Calanques. There are also hiking and bicycle trails that would be fantastic. (It’s important to note that the road is sometimes closed due to strong winds or major fire risks.)
- Visit the Musee d’Art et Traditions Populaire and other cultural sites.
- Indulge in fine food and wine at more of the restaurants and cafes along the waterfront and in the old town.
- Visit the wineries.
- Play on the beaches in town and nearby.
- Relax and enjoy the essence of Cassis.
For more information: Tourist and Convention Office of Cassis
Stay tuned for more posts about our time in the cities and villages of Provence.
Disclosure: Our lovely time in Cassis was made possible by the Cassis Office de Tourisme and Bouches-du-Rhône Tourisme, but our opinions and perspectives are our own — as always.
What an idyllic place. And Cassis makes me think of Hercule Poirot. 🙂
Beautiful! I totally share the sadness that comes one day before leaving. And I often have a similar thoughts about non focusing on the present. I think it’s just how the travel goes and you can do very little about it. I hope you’ll have another chance to visit the place and if I ever go to Provence I will make sure to follow your footsteps.
We will be in Aix en Provence at the end of May and we are eagerly anticipating exploring the region and all that it has to offer.
If you’ll be in Aix, you’ll be very close to Cassis — about 30 miles. If you get a chance, take a drive over there. But I know that you’ll have plenty to do in Aix as well. I’ve got more coming about that lovely city, too.
This is a wonderful posting about Cassis. I really enjoyed reading it and seeing the pictures of one of my favorite little towns on the southern French coast. Thanks.
Wow – Cassis really has everything! Water, wineries and good food are all high on my list of priorities!
The south of France is terra incognito for me. Thanks for the intro to Cassis (do they grow black currants there, too?).
Glad to provide an introduction. This trip was my first time in the south of France. I think you’ve got Crème de Cassis on your mind. 🙂 The liqueur is made from the black currants of the Burgundy region of France.
Wow what an excellent tour, I love smaller towns and cities like this, must put this on my must visit places for 2015
Loved your article on Cassis and plan to follow your footsteps with a bit more time to really experience the area.
Loved this glimpse into the life and legends of Cassis. Your pictures created a well-rounded picture between the architecture, seaside, streets and tastings. A feast of pictures too. I’d like to visit too!
What a picturesque town. The chef at one of my favourite local restaurants in Calgary is from Cassis, and named his bistro “Cassis Bistro”. Looks like a great spot to visit, and wine & dine.
Looks like you soaked up a lot in your 4 hours in Cassis! Is this town where crème de cassis comes from to make those delicious Kir Royale champagne cocktails?
Indeed, it was a short, but full 4-hour itinerary — and a tasty one, too. This was news to me, too — Crème de Cassis actually comes from the Burgundy region of France, not the town of Cassis in Provence.
What a wonderful introduction! I’m sure you are pining to return…you sure whet my appetite!
Everything about Cassis looks and sounds delightful.
It sounds like you will return to Cassis! Et pourquoi pas? What a charming, quintessential town. I think going in the off season might be just the ticket. The Crown of Charlemagne is magnificent. Now you have me scheming about driving along the coastline. 🙂
Excellent. I love cassis, and of course now I’d love to visit this place.
Wow, Cassis is beautiful! The vibrant colors of those boats and the ocean are gorgeous.
This is absolutely beautiful Cathy…it has a real cozy feel to it from your story and pictures. I like that as I did that there weren’t crowds of people! Also, yes please on that delicious assortment of food! I hope you guys are doing great 🙂
Cassis looks lovely! We intended to visit on our family trip to Provence and simply ran out of time. I’m like you in that I always feel a bit sad as a trip draws to a close because there is always more that I wish I had time to do – which I suppose is why I always find myself imagining return trips to the same destinations that I have already been!
Pingback: Off-Season Highlights of Provence » Traveling with Sweeney
Lovely name, lovely place. Can’t wait to return.
Once upon a time when I was in Auvignon, we almost went on to Cassis but didn’t have the time. So I’ve always wondered about it. I enjoyed your visit vicariously. I have, however, had the namesake liquour mixed with Champagne and it is delicious.
You missed a gem in the port town of Cassis. The liqueur you mention bearing the name “Cassis” is actually made from black currants. It is also available as a syrup with no alcohol. When mixed with dry white wine the aperitif is called a Kir. When mixed with champagne it is called a Kir Royale.
Paul in NW FL
Oh Cathy, you should have warned us about all those delicious food photos. I’m about to sleep and will be dreaming of your lovely food in Provence. This looks like an amazing place to visit even for just a few hours and in the off-season. Interesting about the ground coffee to break up the scents. I need to try this somewhere soon. What a wonderful trip this was for you and Mr. TWS.
Charming, lovely, romantic, WOW; Cassis, France is such a beautiful destination.
Hi Cathy, thanks for introduction to Cassis! Your quote from Frédéric Mistral made me intrigue. Reading on made me see why. I’m so charmed. Cassis has many things that speaks to me – the charming streets, the history, the beautiful harbor, the food, the wine estates, the perfumery, etc.
Cute spot. The food looks wonderful.
Thanks for showing me Cassis Cathy – now it’s on my radar 😀
What a stunning place and the food oh the food, it all looks so delicious
This looks like an amazing visit! The four hours in Cassis were full with great discoveries – as it looks like this is a place to visit, if in the area!
Never heard of this French village before, but glad I know of it now … thanks!
Pingback: Off-Season Provence: Things to Do in Vaucluse - Traveling with Sweeney
I’ve always wanted to go to Cassis and after reading your article I REALLY want to go there now! Thanks.
Love learning about places I haven’t heard of, especially in the south of France! Hoping to move to the coast next year, then we can make a day in Cassis happen! 🙂 Beautiful photos and descriptions. Great post for #AllAboutFrance!
Wow! I didn’t realize how much I missed when I visited. We went for the boat ride around the Calanques. I love Cassis and after reading your post, I need to go back and see more. Much love from #AllAboutFrance.
Beautiful Provence – it’s 25 years since I was last there and I think I need to go back! #AllAboutFrance
What a wonderful quote from Mistral, I hadn’t heard it before, but I have heard of the lovely wine from Cassis and drink it regularly. I love the whites. I’ve been for even less time than you, just drove in and out years ago in high season and couldn’t find anywhere to park! Living so close I really must go again, it’s on my long list of places to visit in the region which only ever gets longer despite actively visiting the area each weekend and long weekend! The problem is that there are sooo many lovely places to visit locally and then there’s the rest of the world too. Tough life living here! Thanks for linking up to #AllAboutFrance, your photos are beautifully atmospheric and the food pictures have made me horribly hungry!
Lovely photos! Looks like I’m going to have visit someday!
I have been to Paris, but not Cassis, thus I guess I have seen nothing, lol. It looks so beautiful though and will have to make a point to go next time we are there. Love all the great pictures. They are amazing! Thanks for the great post.
Seems like ever time I come across a blog post with food in it, I’m starving. The food looks amazing. Makes me want to travel to France just for this dish lol.
I did have the pleasure to visit such a beautiful part of France. Cassis was breath taking. The sea was so blue and refreshing. I did have some good food at one of the many cafe’s that they had to offer.
Pingback: Cassis, France...A Secret Escape on The Riviera - So Dearly Beloved
I discovered Cassis in the fall of 1973 as an exchange cadet at the French Air Force Academy (École de l’Air) in Salon de Provence. While only about 15km from the bustling port city of Marseille, Cassis was a quiet fishing village with incredible charm…. something which etched a significant place in my memory of the months spent in Provence.
Some years later (in the 1980s) after I was married and posted to a USAF flying position in Germany, my wife and I took a summer vacation (not in August when all the french do) to Cassis. We spent a week in a quaint little place called Hotel le Golfe (two stars) which was located on the old port.
We opted for a half-pension deal (room plus breakfast and dinner). At breakfast outdoors in front of the hotel on the sidewalk bordering the old port, we watched the fishermen unloading their early morning catches. We knew we would have some of these very fresh fishes on the dinner plate that evening. We spent most of our day on a secluded pebble beach in a cove within walking distance from the hotel.
This information is obviously dated but other than probably maybe mobile phone coverage, WiFi, and perhaps a bit more air conditioning, I cannot imagine the charm of this little town has been compromised.
As an aside, when visiting Provence, I would highly recommend seeing Salon de Provence and Air en Provence which are a short drive from Cassis.
Thanks so much for sharing your experiences in Cassis. The vacation with your wife sounds like a perfectly lovely and romantic time. Although I’m told that summer (especially August) brings the crowds to Cassis, it still has its small seaside village charm. As you can tell from my article, I loved it there and keep trying to work a return visit into my plans. We did get a chance to spend a short time in Salon de Provence. I’d love to get a closer look of that town, too.
Pingback: Romantic Europe: 10 Special Places in My Heart | Traveling with Sweeney