The Calanques – Sport and Adventure Climbing in the South of France.
Local climber and Calanque explorer Tom Kendall shares some local knowledge for those wanting to sample some of France’s most unique and atmospheric rock climbing. Tom climbs and works with local guides and activists and his company ClimbProvence provides tailor-made climbing holidays and private guiding throughout the region.
Overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and set between Marseille and Cassis, is one of the most beautiful and historic rock climbing sites in Europe. With recorded climbing going back for over 100 years and involving climbing legends such as local-lad Gaston Rebuffat, the Calanques have a rich climbing history.
There are several thousand bolted and traditional lines on the white limestone cliffs encompassing all grades and styles of climbing; from easy slabs to technical faces and brutal overhangs! Rain, even in winter, is unusual in the Calanques and climbing is possible nearly all year round.
The reason for this lack of rainfall is the Mistral wind; a strong, cool wind that comes down the Rhone valley from the Alps which keeps the rain clouds away.
Where to climb
There are so many crags and routes in the Calanques that it is impossible to cover them all in a single article, but I will do my best to give you an overview! When choosing a crag it is always important to consider the conditions you want to find there – whether it will be in the sun for autumn climbing, shaded from the sun on hot days or sheltered from the Mistral winds.
The single-pitch destinations on the Marseille side of the Calanques massif include;
Les Baumettes – a collection of crags around the car park at the entrance to the Calanque of Morgiou. The majority of the routes are in the grade 5 and 6 range, there are several crags suitable for top-roping children and a grassy area for picnics.
In the same area, just a 5 minute walk from the car park, is the Vallon des Escampons which is a gem of a crag with well bolted routes in the 5b to 6c range. “Jamika” (5b+), “Alerte meteo” (6a+) and “Sachem in Salem” (6b) are all worthwhile routes.
Colline de Lune is a crag at the entrance to Sormiou, near to parking and sheltered from the Mistral winds. With approximately 60 routes covering the 4a – 7b range (mostly in the 5a – 6a range) there is something for everyone here. “Degain-toi du reve anxieux des bien-assis” is a not-to-be-missed 5c!
Falaise Pastre has nearly 80 routes, mainly in the grade 5b – 6b bracket, in the Parc Pastre overlooking Marseille. The crag is north facing so is shaded from the sun however it takes the full force of a Mistral wind. There are many worthwhile routes here but some of the lower grade routes are getting quite polished. “Phalanges Resinees” (6b+), “Menue Monnaie” (6a) and “Tapagne Diurne” (5c) are all good routes.
The Marseilleveyre is the huge mountain overlooking Marseille; it is covered in single-pitch climbing venues which require a bit of a walk-in. This walk-in means that the crags are less frequented, park at the top of “Boulevard de la Grotte Roland” by the aqueduct.
Le Massila is the longest walk-in (40 minutes) and has 24 good quality climbs in the 4b – 6b range. Ragga Wall (15 minute walk) has a selection of climbs with stiff grading as does the Col des Chevres (30 minutes walk). Other crags on the Marseilleveyre which have both single and multi-pitch routes include Metallika and Mitre; most of the single-pitch climbs here are in the grade 7 bracket.
Rocher des Goudes – face Sud has 30 lower grade climbs and is a great winter climbing venue. “Directe de la Fenetre”(6a) is a classic line. The crags of Escalier des Geants and Alpinodrome are a short walk from the parking areas by the port of Callelongue and have a fine range of single-pitch routes mainly in the grade 5 and 6 bracket. “La Fissure du Geant” is a test of stamina for the 6b climber.
The centre of the Calanques massif is best accessed by parking at Luminy where a 20 minute walk will take you to some single-pitch venues for the grade-pushers! Le Virage is well sheltered from the Mistral winds and has a fearsome overhang giving routes mainly in the 6c to 7c range.
Many of these routes were first bolted for a climbing competition and the area is well worth a visit. The Grotte de l’Ours has 30 routes with 10 routes in the grade 8 bracket! The Paroi des Toits is the classic hard venue in the Calanques. It has more than 100 routes (some multi-pitch); most of them graded 6c and above. The crag is well sheltered from the Mistral wind and is a winter sun trap.
Multi-pitch venues at the Cassis side of the Calanques massif include the magnificent En Vau; a fjord-like setting with towering cliffs covered in climbs. En Vau can be accessed on foot either from Cassis or from a car park off the Marseille to Cassis road (La Gineste); allow up to 1 hour for the walk-in.
The area has many worthwhile routes at all grades including “Super Sirene” (6a+ 6a+ 5a 4b) opened by Gaston Rebuffat in 1941 and “Eperon des Americains” (6b 5c 6b 6b+) opened by John Harlin, Gary Hemming and Royal Robbins in 1963.
In the heart of the Calanques is the massive Candelle and Socle de la Candelle which are accessed from the car park at Luminy. “Le Temple” and” Civa” (both 6a max) are two classic multi-pitch routes which make good days out. The “Arete de Marseille” (5c max) is another classic route.
It is possible to link either “Le Temple” or “Civa” with the “Arete de Marseille” to make a 15 pitch day out! The crag is south facing so makes a nice spring and autumn venue. Also accessed from Luminy is the Cret Saint Michel where many multi-pitch routes at more amiable grades can be found. The classic lines are getting polished but the view from the cliff makes up for it!
Le bec de Sormiou on the Marseille side of the Calanques massif is a fantastic face with well protected routes of up to 6 pitches that gets morning sun and afternoon shade. “Les Traces du Passe” (4c 6a 5c 5c 5c 5b) is a fantastic route. “Le Couchant” (4c 5c 5b 5b 5c) is a nice, well bolted route for those starting out on multi-pitch climbing. It is possible to drive down to the port of Sormiou then walk the 15 minutes to the start of the routes (road access is blocked during the summer months).
The cirque of rock of Rocher de Saint Michel d’Eau Douce – face Ouest is covered in multi-pitch routes of all grades and is a magnificent venue. Depending on the time of day, it is possible to find the crag in the sun for winter climbing or the shade for summer climbing.
The Rocher de Saint Michel d’Eau Douce – face Sud is also covered in multi-pitch routes which make ideal winter objectives. The “Arête de la Cordee” (4a 5c 4c 4b) has the most spectacular 270 degree view and makes a great climb in the late afternoon to watch the sun setting over the sea. Parking is by the port of Callelongue.
Beyond the standard personal kit such as shoes, harness, chalk-bag, belay device and helmet; single-pitch routes normally require no more than 12 quick-draws and a single rope (a 70m rope is necessary for some routes).
The bolts on multi-pitch routes tend to be very spaced (especially in the more remote areas such as Le Socle de la Candelle and En Vau) so it is usually necessary to bring a light rack comprising of a set of nuts, some slings and a selection of cams.
Some people may prefer to use double ropes on the classic routes that meander a bit and require an abseil; although most local climbers simply use a 70m or 80m single rope.
A windproof top is useful to keep the mistral wind at bay. One of best places to buy equipment and guide books in Marseille is Au Vieux Campeur which is located near to “Le Rond Point du Prado”. The shop is an Aladin’s cave packed to the rafters with the latest kit – prepare to get out your credit card!
Decathalon is conveniently located by the entrance to the Calanque of Sormiou, it is a good place to buy guidebooks and has a small selection of climbing essentials. Whilst you are there you might also consider getting some of their Quechua branded clothing to fit in with the locals at the crag!
Escalade Les Calanques (published by the FFME in French) is the most comprehensive guidebook to the area. It is a very good book with clear photos and includes more routes than one could ever do in a lifetime but watch out, some of the routes are under-graded! more info..
Calanques Escalade (published by VTOPO in French) is a selected guide to the Calanques and some other nearby crags, such as Cap Canaille by Cassis, with a maximum grade of 6c. The book seems to concentrate on multi-pitch routes, it is up-to-date and the grades are generally accurate. The book also includes other activities such as walking itineraries. The book can be purchased from the VTOPO website. more info..
France: Cote d’Azur (published by Rockfax in English) contains a section covering many of the best venues in the Calanques. The book can be purchased from the Rockfax website. more info..
Wild camping is not allowed in the Calanques. On the Cassis side of the massif is a campsite Camping les Cigales. Renting accommodation is a good option. Cassis has lots of apartments to rent and prices can be reasonable off peak season.
Hostel accommodation is available in Marseille. Hotel accommodation of all standards is available in both Marseille and Cassis. Some local climbing rock guides provide accommodation. This is a great way to meet local climbers and find out about hidden crags (and many guides live within walking distance of the climbing!)
For information and links to accommodation provides please visit the Climbapedia map – region Marseille / Calanques.
The closest airport to the Calanques is Marseille Provence; several low cost companies fly there. The airport is connected to Marseille and other towns in the region by coach and taxi. The closest train station to the airport is Vitrolles – the station is connected to the airport by a shuttle bus.
Marseille is connected to the rest of Europe by train. Having a car is ideal to facilitate getting to the different climbing venues around the Calanques.
Car hire is possible from Marseille airport, in Marseille itself or in Cassis. Never leave items on display in your car – car crime, whilst on the decline in the region, can still be an issue and would ruin your holiday!
Public transport within Marseille is cheap and includes a metro, bus routes and a cycle hire network. It is possible to reach some of the entry points around the Calanques by bus (e.g. the port of Callelongue, Luminy, Les Baumettes and to travel between Marseille & Cassis).
When to visit
Spring and autumn are the ideal times to climb in the Calanques; the temperatures are nice and rain is infrequent. Climbing is also possible in the winter on well chosen, south facing crags which are also sheltered from the Mistral winds.
During the summer months (between 1st June and 30th September) access to the Calanques is restricted due to fire risk. The fire risk is assessed according to a number of factors including: wind speed, temperature, humidity and the amount of recent rain. The fire risk and access to the Calanques is expressed at three levels;
Orange – You can enter the Calanques at any time of the day.
Red – You can enter the Calanques between 6am and 11am.
Black – It is prohibited to enter the Calanques throughout the day.
Please check the access situation before heading off for the day by phoning 0811 20 13 13 (information is available in both English and French)
As the largest city on the Mediterranean, Marseille has a lot to offer. The food, culture and shopping around the touristic Vieux Port and Panier areas of town provide for a good day off.
The beach in Marseille is an interesting “alternative” beach experience. A day trip by ferry to the islands in the bay of Marseille (Iles d’If et du Frioul) is a good day trip; Ferries leave from the Vieux Port.
There is a cycle hire network throughout Marseille; you can pick up and drop off bikes from any of the automatic stations (a credit card is required). This is a nice way to see the city and its coastline.
There is a climbing and bouldering facility in St Anne for rainy days. more info ..
The port, beach and restaurants of Cassis make a nice rest day on the other side of the massif. Boat trips around the Calanques can be arranged from the port in either Marseille or Cassis. Canoes can be arranged in Cassis for those who fancy a paddling session on their rest days! Aix-en-Provence is a great place to visit; it has many cafes, restaurants and museums and is a pretty place to walk around.September 16th, 2011 by admin