Mediterranean Moments

Mountain drives, bustling street markets, and deserted villages typify shoulder season on the French Mediterranean coast.
By Ben Raphael
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Cassis, France
Cruising down Route D141 near Cassis, the author stops to snap a photo of the road ahead.  (Ben Raphael)
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The French seaside village of Cassis is guarded to the southeast by a massive sandstone bluff. One side of the rock formation drops hundreds of feet straight down to the Mediterranean Sea. The other side falls away to the valley floor at intervals just wide enough for a twisting road (D141) to pass through. We had stopped for half an hour or so to watch the setting sun turn the cliff face from orange to pink to dusty brown. Now, behind the wheel of our rental car—a metallic blue, diesel, six-speed VW Golf—I was still distracted by the view. Arid, rocky hills dotted with patches of scrubby trees and brush, marching inland to the horizon. I spotted a turnoff a few switchbacks away and informed my passengers of my intention to stop for one last gaze before the daylight completely faded. I stepped on the gas, speeding towards the first corner, then downshifted into second. The engine revved, slowing the car just enough to snake around the turn. Back into third, my feet danced between pedals. Second again, around the corner. Gravel turnoff just ahead. Sharp left. Emergency brake. Wheels locked and we're skidding, the countryside whirling around us.

One hundred and eighty degrees later, we stopped. Dust rose up around the car. Pebbles skittered down the slope of the hill. Through my ecstatic, perhaps maniacal, laughter I realized the rest of the crew was not sharing in my joy. In fact they were terrified. I had to apologize, for I had been lost in a romantic moment. I wasn't a tourist following the herds from sight to sight. I was an international man of intrigue, effortlessly guiding his craft through the jagged landscape of the French Mediterranean coast. And executing a textbook evasive maneuver.

It wasn't the first time on this getaway—a weeklong road trip from Nice to Barcelona with my fiancée and another couple—that I had become lost in the moment. The day before, we had gone to the street market in Saint Cyr Sur Mer. Although the market was alive and busy—crowded in fact—there were no tourists to be seen. According to Leala, who was hosting us in her family's condo for a couple of nights, the unseasonable heat wave (around 80 in late October) may have drawn some French people back to their vacation homes in the area, but essentially we were mixing with the locals of this small seaside community. That’s the genius of making this drive during the shoulder season, which is essentially October through November and March through April. We risked a little cold weather, but it paid off as we made ourselves at home in a very authentic way in each village along the route.

Stopping at the fish stand, then the vegetable stand, then the bakery, we picked up ingredients for a bouillabaisse. Back at the condo in the neighboring town of Bandol, we consulted our recipe and found that it suggested a wine from none other than the Bandol region of France. Quelle chance! We would dine well that night. But first we took an afternoon stroll, through fields of wild rosemary, past olive trees, and around vineyards. We climbed down a rocky trail, snaked through a crack in a 50-foot cliff, to the edge of the sea. A few people were sprawled in the sun. Topless women mixed with Speedo-clad men, cigarettes dangling from their mouths. A French scene if I've ever seen one. We swam a bit and then napped on the beach before strolling back through the countryside to the condo. With homemade soup rich with the days' catch, paired appropriately with wine from neighboring vineyards, I was a cuisine-savvy local, talking and laughing with my just-as-savvy friends—nay, not friends, mes amis. Et mon amour. You get the point.

The next day, we drove inland to Aix en Provence where the female half of our foursome was enamored by the shops. "Cute," they said at each window. Or "So cute!" Or just "Cuuuute!" I was taken by the food. A filling French country salad with hard-boiled eggs, lardon (French bacon), fresh lettuce, tomatoes, and corn made the side-trip worthwhile. My fiancée, Adrienne, took away some ceramic coasters; I took away a full belly. Then it was the scenic route home, suggested by our friend and guide-by-default, Leala. We stopped at Cassis, before heading up the bluff to our lookout and the aforementioned emergency brake incident.

Published: 28 Mar 2007 | Last Updated: 2 Nov 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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