(Creme de) Cassis

It’s laughably late in the season to make plans to visit the South of France;  we really didn’t have time to think about “summer vacation” while preparing for the biggest move of our lives back in the US. But I had no idea how desolate the streets of our London neighborhood would be come August, and it gives me the creeps.

So, we scour the internet for deals and steals for a quick getaway to somewhere warm on the “continent.” We decide on Cassis, 45 minutes east of Marseille on France’s Mediterranean coast.

Flying is crazy expensive and out of the question, so we take the circuitous route: From our Southwest London neighborhood, we hop a bus to the tube station; take the tube to London’s St. Pancras train station, and board the high-speed Eurostar, which, in under 3 hours, whizzes us across the English Channel and over to Paris’s Gare du Nord station. From there, we take a taxi across town to  Gare Montparnasse, another train station in Paris, where we hop the TGV (France’s high-speed train system) that cuts south through the French countryside to Marseille. There, we switch to another train that chugs along the Mediterranean coast, ending up at Cassis, roughly nine hours door to door.

Is there a faster way by ground? Probably, but we don’t know about it yet. Besides, we got some great scenery.

Cassis is not one of those places you hear a lot about at home, like St. Tropez and Provence. Pronounced “Cass-ee,” not “Cass-ees,” it is home to Les Calanques, a series of huge cliffs that jut out into the Mediterranean. It has the same assortment of pastel-colored houses that are so emblematic of the Mediterranean and of the South of France, and the water is the cleanest, clearest, COLDEST blue I’ve ever felt. Most of the tourist action is centered around the Port de Cassis, a crescent-shaped harbor where waterside restaurants offer everything from seafood to Italian to French. Tables spill out onto front patios, crowded with holidaymakers drinking wine and enjoying the breeze and watching the boats sail in and out.

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Most of the the beaches are pebbly, and the sunbathers lay on straw mats, not towels. The first day we bring a late-afternoon picnic to the beach, stopping at the market to pick up bread, cheese, olives, salami, bottled water and a big bottle of crisp Cassis white. This basically replaces water as our sustaining beverage and we drink it in full at every midday meal.

There are not lots of English speakers on the beach with us, and the kids make friends with a French brother and sister to whom they speak in a sort of sign language. They play for hours and it’s one of those times where I think moving across the Atlantic, however fraught with anxiety and emotion, is a gift for our kids, because it’s teaching them that the world is bigger than they are. Between the sun, the wine, the lapping waves and our citizen-of-the-world children, we’re feeling very self-congratulatory.

Well, it’s like the old axiom says. Pride comes before a fall.

We’ve secured an apartment through a site called Home Away, which is basically like VRBO. Hotels are hard to come by for more than 2 people, because there aren’t loads of “family” sized rooms and you’re not guaranteed connecting rooms if you book two, so renting an apartment in Europe is pretty much a family of four’s best bet.

Plus, like I said, it was late in the season to be making plans, especially when you’re up against the Britons and the Europeans who are very organized about making plans for all the term breaks (for the record, there are six sets of school “breaks,” and for the record, when I say “organized,” I mean, OCD).

When we arrive, in broad daylight, our accommodations are definitely bare bones, but serviceable enough, with a charming balcony overlooking a Boules court (French bocce, I think) and the port, with a view of Les Calanques in the distance.

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But once we start getting ready for bed, around 11 pm, we realize that our rental is literally ONE FLOOR above a Discotheque and an Irish Pub. An Irish Pub in France, you say? Yes! This is probably the only Irish Pub in the whole country, and here we are, trying to sleep above it. Needless to say, this being the South of France, and pubs and discotheques being what they are in general, the charming balcony becomes a gateway to hell until at least dawn. Closing the front windows barely muffles the sound of the late-night merrymakers, and makes the apartment unbearably hot (as with most “charming,” relatively inexpensive beach rentals, it doesn’t have a/c).

The four of us end up sleeping in the much quieter back room with the windows open a crack to mitigate the stifling heat, and we are all awoken every hour by the sound of church bells.

Then again, this is the South of France, and if the accommodations leave a little something to be desired, the food certainly doesn’t. We start off almost every day with coffee and baguette, either on our balcony or at one of the port restaurants, followed by a beach picnic for lunch. Dinners are our time to explore the town, which kind of sprawls up into the hills away from the port, radiating streets and alleys like spokes from a wheel. Just in from the port, the main streets offer grocery stores, boutiques, souvenir shops, and open-air markets selling fedoras and “Tropeziennes”  (a ubiquitous kind of French sandal) and flowy linen clothing and straw baskets and handcrafted jewelry. Climb up from the port even further, and you can explore the town’s ancient narrow alleys, where all kinds of wonderful shops and restaurants are tucked away like little secrets.

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On our last night we eat dinner at one of these, a restaurant called La Defonce. Inside, the restaurant is a low-ceilinged, candlelit, stone-walled room, and you can imagine hunkering down here for a hearty meal on a cold Winter night when France’s famed Mistral winds blow up raging storms along the Mediterranean coast. Tonight, though, the air is calm and warm, and and we take a seat at one of the handful of tables set up on the small patio outside the restaurant, giving us a perfect view down a cobblestoned alley to the lights of the Port and Les Calanques beyond.

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We order the day’s special, Nigerian prawns, and pizzas covered in basil and mozzarella for the kids, and we drink wine and watch the vacationers in their white linens and diaphanous tops navigate their way past us. The restaurant is run by a family – the daughter seats us, the son tells us about the specials, and the mother,  the proprietress, comes out to talk to us – she’s heard that we are American (there aren’t many of us here) and wants to make sure the meal is OK. Her husband, the chef, used to be a banker and they decided to chuck it all and open a restaurant. She says every morning she smokes a cigarette and reads the reviews on TripAdvisor. I promise to add to the good ones.

The next morning,  we pack up our things and sweep the dingy floor with bleary eyes. We know we’re ready to get the epic journey back to London over with and return to our clean, quiet house – but we’re all a little forlorn as the taxi winds it way up the hills and away from the Port de Cassis, back to the train station.

IMG_2708There’s never much time to dwell on leaving paradise, though, is there? Back on the TGV, Charlie gets motion sickness. He vomits his way from Avignon to Paris, and then for good measure, one more time, on the Eurostar, somewhere deep in the earth below the English Channel. Ah, c’est la vie. No matter where you live, or where you visit, the proverbial shit is going to happen.

(By the way, I can be very French about the whole episode, because Jeff was the one mopping up the vomit and taking Charlie in and out of the bathroom. I’m pretty sure “C’est la vie” was not the phrase he would use.)

We arrive back in England, and – after our multi-step return journey across Greater London – unlock the door to our house, throw in a load of laundry, take baths, settle stomachs, and heat up frozen pizzas which we eat on trays in front of the TV. It’s a far cry from dining al fresco on exquisite French food, but I think we all get the feeling, for the first time, that this house feels like “home.”

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