“Qu’a vist Paris e noun Cassis a ren vist,” wrote poet Frédéric Mistral. “Whoever has seen Paris but not Cassis has seen nothing.” The trawlers and fishing boats in the small, Provençal port sail between two enormous natural monuments: the renowned calanques and the Cap Canaille, an ocher wall overlooking the Mediterranean Sea at 1,300 feet tall. This sandstone mass is quite unexpected against the white limestone backdrop of this part of Provence, and never fails to draw the eye.
For the last 150 years, the Hôtel Les Roches Blanches has stood opposite this cliff, which Louis XIV thought was the most beautiful in his kingdom. Like a seagull’s nest, the grand villa at the heart of the establishment sits above a cascade of terraces tumbling down into the midnight-blue waters. Seen from one such plateau, the stone lighthouse of Cassis resembles a cup-and-ball game, heralding the entrance to the port with its bottle-green light.
In the early 20th century, the double column-flanked doorway to Les Roches Blanches has welcomed writer and director Marcel Pagnol and his favorite actor, Fernandel. The Lumière brothers, holidaying in nearby La Ciotat, would also invite themselves over for the day. At its height, Cassis was a secret destination for the people of Marseille. On Sundays, the movers and shakers of the Mediterranean metropolis would indulge in a bouillabaisse stew to recover from the winding road of the Col de la Gineste, which separates the city from the village.
Winston Churchill’s Pied-à-Terre
The Vieux-Port and the Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde basilica are some 12 miles away along the coast. They can also be accessed by a path running through the calanques, a stunning expanse of rocky hills bristling with limestone peaks, thyme-scented flanks, and inlets forged by 120 million years of erosion. The calanques of Cassis are popular among swimmers, climbers, and, since 1991, prehistorians. That year, Cassis diver Henri Cosquer discovered an underwater grotto whose walls were covered with drawings and engravings dating back to 30,000 years ago. Today, this gem is known as Cosquer Cave.
In the early 20th century, another artist moved his easel and brushes to this comfortable setting. Winston Churchill was not yet prime minister when he spent time at Les Roches Blanches, strolling along Bestouan Beach and painting the calanque of Port-Miou and Cap Canaille. His teacher, Madge Oliver, lived in a turreted villa near the hotel. American filmmaker Jerome Hill, the son of the creator of the Great Northern Railroad, moved in after her and launched an artist residency program called the Camargo Foundation. And in the 1930s, Cassis wine was granted France’s very first PDO, a Protected Designation of Origin, certifying the excellence of a given terroir.
Some 80 years later, the hotel was choked with Virginia creeper and had fallen into disrepair. In 2016, architect Monika Kappel, who lives between Paris and Cassis, saw “the project of a lifetime.” The two subsequent years of renovation work respected the hotel’s Art Deco heritage, preserving the chandeliers in the lobby, the tortoiseshell motifs, the wrought-iron banisters on the staircase, and the coat of arms engraved with the initials “RB.” But they also introduced a feeling of space, as if the hotel’s dimensions had been expanded by the Mediterranean light and the mistral wind.
A Hotel in Harmony with the Sea
The 45 rooms all have balconies with guardrails, and some boast large terraces on the upper levels, furnished with bespoke tables in wood, granite, and marble. “I love the soft texture of stone,” says the architect. “When your hotel is called Les Roches Blanches, you don’t put down tiles.” At the top of the new, four-room villa named “Cala Bianca,” the panoramic twin shower looks a lot like a glass chamber hanging above the treetops.
“I love feeling as though I could walk across the trees, feeling the pine needles beneath my feet, and slip all the way down to the Mediterranean,” says Monika Kappel. The Aleppo pines, with their pink and black bark, are local stars. Their sap perfumes the air, their branches twisting above the pétanque court, the swimming pool, and the Loup Bar, where guests can enjoy raw fish delicacies for lunch. Mediterranean dishes are shared under the pergola at Le Rocco, while a more gourmet cuisine is served at the Les Petites Canailles restaurant.
Occasionally, tree trunks can be found growing across flights of stairs cut into the limestone itself. The steps lead up to everlasting-filled alcoves and viewing points created between cracks in the rock – ideal for taking a nap while listening to the waves. When it gets too hot, guests can step down the metal ladder bolted into the rocks. At the bottom they can take a multicolored swim in the bay, admiring the white limestone, ocher cliffs, blue sea, and the surrounding green vineyards. Introduced by the Greeks, vin de Cassis was the first wine in Gaul. The appellation now includes around a dozen vineyards, all of which are organic. At La Dona Tigana, you might be lucky enough to meet the owner, former international soccer player Jean Tigana. If you do, he will explain how he now enjoys playing rugby with his neighbor, Dimitri Droisneau, the triple Michelin-star chef at the Villa Madie. Now you know another local secret in Cassis…