by Susan Manfull

Lunch at Le Chateau in Sormiou
When the summer temperatures begin to rise in Provence, one of our favorite destinations for lunch is Le Château, perfectly placed atop Sormiou, one of the region’s best known calanques. Located just 15 minutes from the Old Port in Marseille, you will find dramatic views of aqua-colored water dotted with sail boats next to towering white cliffs as well as cool breezes and terrific food. It is just an hour and a half from our beloved Lourmarin, so it can be a quick jaunt or the focal point of a wonderful day trip. 
Calanque de Sormiou
Calanque means “inlet” and likely stems from the word, calanca, which is from both the old provençal language , Occitan, and the Corsican language. Les Calanques are a string of…
very narrow inlets of deep, crystal clear water bordered by steep limestone cliffs. There are as many as 24 calanques, each named, that lie between Marseille and Cassis. Sormiou lies in the middle. 
Image from French Moments

The creation of these beautiful inlets that you see today probably began about 6 million years ago. The steep valleys were formed by rivers that cut through the area when the Mediterranean Sea separated from the Atlantic Ocean and its sea level fell as much as 1500 meters below the ocean. They were also created when caves that were formed as a result of the lowered sea levels collapsed. Later, when sea levels rose, these valleys were flooded, which is what we see today.

The Calanques are stunning in their beauty. The contrast between the steep white cliffs and the blue- green water is dramatic. The area, very dry and almost devoid of any soil, offers the perfect conditions for my favorite shrubs of rosemary, thyme, and sage. It is an ideal habitat for rabbits and fox, and, I read that France’s “last surviving pair of Bonelli eagles” resides here. Quarries have provided white limestone for several centuries, some of which was used for the base of the Statue of Liberty. Hiking, swimming and sunbathing (including a nude beach), horseback riding, and biking draw many people to the area. 

Calanque de Sormiou

Thus, it may not be surprising that Les Calanques became France’s 10th National Park in April 2012. The new park comprises 8500 hectares of land and even more hectares of sea. It boasts 90 archaeological sites, the most famous of which is Cosquer Cave, an underwater cave with drawings of animals on the walls that date back as far as 27,000 BC.

The calanques may be seen (and visited) via boat tours that depart regularly from Cassis and Marseille. (A boat tour allows you to see many calanques and some services do drop off and pick up visitors; we recommend taking it from the harbor in Cassis.) Access via car is highly restricted, especially in the summer ( to protect the ecosystem and reduce the possibility of fire). You can park your car at one of the many entrances (for a fee) and walk in (but don’t leave any valuables!).  

The walk from the car park at the entrance to Sormiou is about an hour–it is not a particularly attractive walk until the half-way mark and it looks like it would be a very hot walk! 
Or you can make a reservation at Restaurant Le Château, which allows you to drive in to the parking lot at the restaurant, a mere 15 minutes. (It’s not that we are in a hurry; rather I point this out to you because a walk with beautiful views awaits you when you reach the coastline–I advise holding out for that!) The drive toward the water, where Le Château is located, begins in a forest of pine which quickly disappears into la garrigue (open scrubland with low trees, evergreen shrubs, and aromatic herbs). When you reach the top of the hill, a breathtaking view of glistening water and limestone cliffs will greet you. I’m always a passenger on this trip, fortunately, because the very narrow road and hairpin turns are not for the faint of heart ( like me! ). Towny always enjoys a large glass of rose from Domaine Ott after that drive.
You may be surprised when you pull up to your destination: there is no castle, not even a small one! Le Château is, shall we say, unassuming in its appearance, living up to its name only in its commanding view and excellent food. Don’t look for turrets or fancy table settings! This is a modest restaurant popular for its simply prepared food and fabulous view (and, of course, the parking advantage!) 
Our friends from Lourmarin, Pierre and Muriel, introduced us to this diamond in the rough.  It seemed to be a well kept secret among locals–I couldn’t find it in any of the guide books.  I didn’t even want to include it among our list of favorite restaurants (not that we have millions of readers but I just didn’t want any more people knowing about it!).  Now, it is more widely known and listed many places as a excellent choice for lunch.
Le Château is known for its bouillabaisse, but one needs to order this meal in advance….so, unfortunately, we’ve never had it! Their stuffed mussels are the best I’ve ever had. I always order a fish of some sort, so fresh it seems to have jumped on to the grill from the sea. I have never been disappointed. The wine list is short but carefully selected, favoring local wineries. We recommend the white from Domaine Paternel in nearby Cassis and the rose from Domaine Ott in nearby Bandol. 
I always feel like time stands still when I am sitting at one of the tables in Le Château. The sky is usually that deep blue color for which Provence is so famous, the summer heat is kept at bay by the light breeze and the canvas cover that shades the deck, the view is spectacular, the food and service are excellent, and the rose is perfectly chilled. Maybe this is how royalty feels. 
Calanque de Sormiou
After our leisurely meal, we take a walk, the length of which largely depends on the heat ( make sure to put on sun screen, wear walking shoes, and take some water!). (Our daughter usually heads to the beach where there is a small cafe.) The views are just beautiful, with something different around each bend. 
A hike after lunch
Our après-dejeuner adventures fall into the “walk” category although I want to underscore that this area is famous for its hiking trails.  I hasten to add that summer is not the time for serious hiking in this part of Provence. In fact, many of the calanques are closed to the public in the summer months (due to the high risk of forest fires in the dry months). 
Burning off the calories!

Lunch at Le Château and a short walk along the calanques–a great way to spend a hot summer day! Extend your day with a stop in Marseille or Aix-en-Provence. 


We often start the day off with a stop at Marseille’s famous Vieux Port. Watch the fishermen unload their catch and see the fishmongers expertly prepare the fish for their customers. Enjoy a grand creme in one of the cafes that line the port where you’ll have a ringside seat for people watching. We often walk over to the colorful Arab market for interesting spices, exotic aromas, and a little more people watching. 

Le Vieux Port in Marseille
Arab Market in Marseille
With the high temperatures and thick humidity here on the east coast, I’d love to be sitting at a table in Le Château, sipping rose and eating stuffed mussels. 
Dusk in Sormiou


  1. with this post you have cemented my desire to really really plan a trip there. great photos, mouthwatering food descriptions and wonderful walks all with crystal clear waters nearby. an idyllic spot for sure. thanks for the great posting. gg

  2. The Chateau and our visit to Sormiou has to have been one of the highlights of our visit to Provence. It is exactly as you said, Susan, a place where time seems to stand still. Although it has been almost 4 years since we were there, I can still feel the languor of that day, taste the freshness of our fish and delight in the stunning views as we hiked to the top. Our time there seemed to have filled an entire day, yet somehow we played in Marseille as well. How does that happen?

  3. Everyone should make a space on their "Bucket List" to include this lovely place. It was beautifully described and the pictures were inviting. But hurry before this paradise is discovered and the tourists arrive !!

  4. We sailed (or rather motored) into a couple of the calanques when we were on our way from Marseilles to the Ile des Embiez in 1979. They are, indeed, a natural wonder but a little intimidating since we were all alone and hoping that our charts were up to date. We had a memorable time in Cassis the next day as a storm turned all the streets leading into rivers, depositing lots of flotsam in the lovely harbor.

  5. Hi gg!
    It truly is an idyllic spot~You would love it! I would love to see the photos you surface with! Thanks for the kind feedback!

  6. THAT was a fabulous day, from start to finish! From the old port in Marseille to our long walk, every moment was memorable! Thanks so much for your note, David!

  7. I need to make a bucket list! Les Calanques are definitely a worthy contender for any one's list. And, yes, you are right about doing it sooner rather than later. One of the reasons that many people did not want to have the area designated a National Park is because they feel the number of tourists visiting will skyrocket.

    Thanks for your thoughtful note.


  8. Oh my–THAT would be a most memorable trip! From the beauty of nature to the havoc it can wreak…. It sounds like a real adventure!

    Thanks so much for your note.


  9. Several readers sent emails to me, asking for the telephone number of Le Chateau. Oooops…how did I forget that?!

    Within France, the number is 04 91 25 08 69. And they are open "7j/7 – Midi et soir"!

    Have fun!

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