Firstly, the French word "cassis" means "blackcurrant". Well, that's simple enough.
Then there's "creme de cassis", that intensely-flavored (and highly alcoholic) blackcurrant cordial that's a speciality of Dijon in Burgandy and is an essential ingredient of the well-known aperitif "vin blanc cassis" or "Kir".
But that's not what I want to talk about.
The other Cassis is a little town in the Bouches-du-Rhone department of Provence. It's a port, to be exact, and sits on the coast (as ports tend to do) just a couple
of dozen kilometers east of France's second city, Marseille.
It's a charming place: relaxed, friendly, with a good selection of cafes and restaurants, and is well worth a visit if you happen to be in the region. Although it tends to get extremely busy during the summer months - and parking can be a nightmare! - the place never seems to lose its warm, easy-going atmosphere.
There's an old Provencal saying:
"Qu'a vist Paris, se noun a vist Cassis, pou dire: n'ai ren vist."
This roughly translates as
"If you've seen Paris but not Cassis
You ain't seen nothin!"
If you approach the town from the north, rather than along the coast, you are greeted almost immediately by an incredible vista. The road drops down from the autoroute, and there below you the town is spread out like an amphitheatre, with the Mediterranean glinting (most of the time) in the sunlight and the towering peak of Cap Canaille, the tallest sea cliff in Europe, jutting proudly to the east of the port.
And the vineyards!
As you descend towards the town you suddenly become aware that there are vineyards on each side of you, stretching away almost as far as you can see. No, it's not Bordeaux or Burgandy - the wine-growing area here is on a much, much smaller scale, and is concentrated into 494 acres - but it's still a sight that never fails to warm the heart and get the tastebuds tingling in anticipation as you drive down into the town.
Although a few reds and roses are produced - and are well worth exploring - Cassis is famous principally for its white wines. The wines are made mainly from the Marsanne, Clairette, Ugni Blanc Grenache, Cinsault and Mourvedre grapes, which evidently flourish on the sparse calcareous soil and in the warm, dry, hillside climate.
In actual fact, Cassis is the proud owner of the oldest appellation controllee in the whole of France, granted as far back as the mid-1930s.
Cassis is also famous for its fish and seafood, which you can sample in abundance in the restaurants along the quayside, and the white Cassis wines are a perfect accompaniment to these local dishes. It is said that there is no better accompaniement to Bouillabaisse or Bourride than the white wines of Cassis, and they are also considered the perfect partner for the famous "oursins" (sea urchins) of the region.
If you visit the town, you really should book a table at the "Nino" restaurant on the quai Bartolemy. Not only is the food wonderful and the welcome warm and friendly, but the wine list has a whole page of Cassis wines for your consideration. Bruno, the unfailingly charming and obliging owner, will be only too happy to help you choose the wine which best matches the food you have ordered. Helpfully, all the wines are exactly the same price, so you can sample them with financial impunity!
You can also buy the wines at some of the local shops - or, of course, direct from the vineyards. This makes a great half-day out. Most of the vineyards - eg the
Domaine de la Ferme Blanche, the Clos d'Albizzi and the Clos Sainte-Madeleine - are open to the public. (But it might be a good idea to enquire at the local Tourist Office to find out which ones welcome visitors at that particular time of year. If you turn up without an appointment during the grape harvest, you might find the place closed or the welcome less than enthusiastic!)
Another local attraction are the "Calanques", a unique series of inlets cut deep into a 20-kilometer stretch of limestone cliffs between Cassis and Marseille. One or two of them are just about accessible by foot, but unless you happen to possess the agility and sure-footedness of a mountain goat, the ideal way to visit is by boat. Pleasure cruisers run trips from the harbor at Cassis, and you can visit either 3, 5 or 8 calanques at a time. Trips take between 45 minutes to an hour and a half. The area is also a favored spot for rock climbers - and also, occasionally, for nudists!
A number of well-known artists are also associated with Cassis. Matisse, Dufy and Derain all used the town as a sort of summer retreat - and Winston Churchill apparently first learned to paint here. The small but charming municipal museum in the center of the town has some interesting items on display, including a
range of Roman and Greek artifacts recovered from the seabed. Like most of the places and people of Cassis, it is low-key, unpretentious, friendly and
Cassis is a place I keep coming back to, time and time again, both in and out of season. It never loses its appeal. I heartily recommend it!
Peter Carnes is a UK-based Internet author and publisher.
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