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Sunday, May 27, 2012, in Bandol, on the Côte d'Azur, France

Hi everyone. The weather finally calmed down enough for us to leave Port Napoleon, where we’ve been for about three weeks.

We’d fixed everything that had to work, so we could leave Port Napoleon. The errant part for our watermaker was on its way to Sweden, with the expectation that it would find us at a future port. Art did all of the jobs he could imagine onboard and the one bit of carpentry that he dreamed up for the future could certainly wait until later in the season. Nobody at Port Napoleon would be available to do it anyway; everyone was just too busy with boat launches for something like this. It would be a small job, a shelf inside a cabinet to mount a small electronic device. When masts aren’t stepped and watermaker parts are shattered, priorities are clear. We’d been a high priority for a few weeks ourselves.

All we needed now was weather. Unfortunately, weather for leaving was apparently back-ordered like our watermaker part. Art scrutinized the forecasts daily, multiple times a day, and pronounced to me on Sunday that summer would arrive on Wednesday. The days we’d have before then, though, would be the winter in Provence that many people escape: chilling rain and the occasional gust that lowers the skin temperature down to the bone and blows the rain into your face, the only unsheltered part of you.

Walking to town was out. Errands within the boatyard were carefully timed to avoid downpours. We did manage to find a carpenter who would construct our shelf, simply because it wouldn’t take very long. Our extended visit to Port Napoleon, now to be about three weeks, meant that we had a mailing address for the delivery of our watermaker part. It arrived in France and was out for delivery one day and mysteriously disappeared back to Marseille with apologies from the overnight service, and then it arrived for real. The watermaker was fixed. A boat with nothing at all broken or needed. It was hard to believe, and probably wouldn’t last very long.

Art pored over the cruising guide, still not sure where we’d go next, except that it wouldn’t be Marseille, which kept telling us it would love to see us, but apparently had to wash its hair the day we wanted to arrive.

As you sit in port, stuck by the weather, your philosophy about your departure begins to change. We’re not in a hurry this season, with plenty of time to get to Malta, but you start to think that you really should go somewhere when you finally begin to move. First, Art had an anchorage in mind, but he cooled on the idea because it was only 23 miles away. So he looked around at other options.

For days, Art kept insisting that summer would arrive on Wednesday. Soon his forecasts got more specific. “Summer will be here Wednesday at 3:00 in the afternoon.��� Wednesday arrived, and so did summer, in mid-afternoon. The forecast for the next day was good for sailing east. It was finally time to leave Port Napoleon.

We checked out of the boatyard, paid all of our bills, and got our shelf installed in the cabinet. In the morning, we left the marina and headed along the long, dredged channel leading from Port Napoleon to the sea. It’s a well-marked area, but apparently not well enough. I directed Art’s attention to a mast and a mizzen mast pointed generally but not quite skyward some ways outside of the channel. At first he seemed confused: why would rigging be all the way out here all by itself? Then he began to realize that the boat to which those masts were rigged was present but sunken, no doubt, in some of the nasty weather of the past week or two. We’d heard nothing about this accident in the port, which we hoped was because the loss was only financial. It’s jarring when you’re at sea to look the risks of boating right in the eye. Nobody should be arrogant enough to think that something bad can’t happen to them, and there is little room for risk-taking of any kind in boating. The creepiest part of the experience was that we were still getting an AIS signal from this sunken ship. Speed: 0 knots.

Had we sailed for the day, our speed would have approached zero as well. The wind we hoped would propel us went limp. Our first great sail that we’d anticipated for weeks became a motor on flat seas, still rolling with leftover mistral. The short trip to a fine anchorage, which we’d rejected the day before, seemed like a great idea. Passing Marseille brought a craggier, drier coastline, and we entered the calanques.

A calanque (pronounced “kalonks”, and I predict that you, too, will start calling it a kalonk-a-donk as we did) is an inlet carved into steep limestone walls, the Mediterranean answer to the fjord. Water inside the inlets tends to go from steep to shallow quickly, so the still water is a palette of deep blue and gashes of bright turquoise nearer the shore. Art chose one of the largest calanques for our overnight visit, the Sormiou Calanque. One of my guidebooks called it “among the loveliest of the calanques”, while another guidebook mentioned it not at all in a list of its recommendations.

The Sormiou calanque is reachable by car, and there are some restaurants surrounding a sandy beach. As I dropped the anchor, I could see silhouettes of climbers on the top peaks of stone. One of them waved to me (or to someone miles away; it’s hard to tell) and I waved back. There are hiking trails, too, that don’t necessarily involve too much vertical progress, and you could always just swim from the beach or sit at a café under an umbrella.

That’s when the continuous caravan of tour boats started. There’s a flourishing business out of Marseille to the west and resorts to the east for tour boats that escort you into a series of calanques. It’s a drive-by proposition; the guidebooks encourage you not to bother with any tour that doesn’t take you to at least three of them. The boats swoosh into the inlet, curve around as if skating around an ice-rink, and they’re out in moments, and the next one comes in. It’s not as intrusive as it sounds; all of the tours are finished at dusk. Dressing with adequate cover is wise, because you might end up in someone’s tweeted upload during their relay through the calanque.

We took the dinghy ashore and had our first summer beer, now that it was summer plus one day, ordered from an indifferent waitress at an ordinary café with a lovely view of the harbor. I faced the stone precipice, watching climbers rappel on a perpendicular and unforgiving wall; Art faced the beach in hopes of spotting topless ladies with tops worth seeing. Mine was undoubtedly the better bet.

The path between dinghy and restaurant circumscribed the bay, where homes overlooking the water were hidden from sight up to the roof by a combination of hillsides, shrubbery, and fences. Though it doesn’t look like much can grow on the rocks, they are home to 900 plant species, 15 of which are protected. The flora we saw on the path was desert-capable, with some purple and red flowers, and several large, flowering prickly-pear cactus plants.

After a quiet night at anchor, we headed for our next destination. It was another calm day, and we motored along the coast right by the lovely bay outside Cassis. I reread my old journal from 2001, to remember our landfall at Cassis from the Balearic Islands of Spain on our previous boat. Thus, our Mediterranean coast travels began at Cassis, the place we’d just passed by, heading east. So this destination, Bandol, finally marks the first Mediterranean coastline that isn’t new terrain for us to explore. From here on out, it’s been-there, done that. But it’s the French Riviera, so a second round will be just fine.

Bandol is a resort town, but it’s apparently been well-hidden by the French. There are three beaches, a casino, many boat tours, and a thriving tourist industry. One of my books about the area mentioned it once, only for the eponymous wine of the region. Another skipped over it without so much as an “oh, and if you’re in the neighborhood…” sort of nod.

I thought that the marina would be small. Neighboring Cassis, which we visited in 2001, gets a lot of attention in guidebooks and cruising pilot guides, but the marina was so tiny we couldn’t turn around in it. Granted, the size of a harbor doesn’t preordain the size or popularity of a town, but civilizations grew up on the edges of the Mediterranean, so places with big, protected harbors are typically the most mature. Virtually nothing on the Internet gave me any sense that Bandol had more of a tourist industry than our sleepy little hamlet near Port Napoleon.

After alerting the capitainerie to our arrival, someone came out to greet us at the harbor entrance and escorted us to the wall of the town quay. Docked on both sides of us were boats promising tours of the calanques or a nearby island. A few boats away, there was a gigantic motor yacht flying the flag of some country whose constitution undoubtedly states “no taxes. Anything else goes.”

Compared to the marina at Cassis, this place was very large. There’s room for 1600 boats, one of the top ten French marinas in size. I was delighted to be at the town dock, stern-in, where we could immerse ourselves in the energy of the waterfront from the cockpit of the boat. This was the Mediterranean summer experience I remembered, and I was surprised that I had to travel as far east as the Cote d’Azur to find it. No matter that the tour boats arrived and departed continuously during daylight hours; we were in the heart of town, and life was happening around us. Some people like solitude; I want commerce around me.

The day of our arrival was the beginning of a holiday weekend, the fourth in as many weeks as we’d been in France. In the afternoon would be a regatta of sorts of the old pointus, old wooden boats with a distinctive design and even more distinctive coloring by its owners.

The pointus get their name from the shape, pointed at both ends, and its old-fashioned appeal from its rigging, a lateen-style with a bandanna of a sail and an almost-defiant mast. Some of the owners were aboard, most in those iconic shirts of horizontal blue-and-white stripe. By nightfall, most were gone on their holiday mission.

After dinner, we walked along the wide median parallel to the harbor. By the tourist office, the sandy field was host to several games of petanque, the Provencal version of boules (lawn bowling). The best ground for it must have been the one closest to the main part of town; those players were very capable and equally solemn. A good toss apparently contains a lot of backspin, and just a few centimeters from the target result in a waste of the throw. The farthest team away was a young man and his girlfriend, who tossed the ball straighter and much less accurately. They stayed well clear of the more serious group. The summer crowds weren’t strolling, though the restaurants were crowded. Unable to pass up the piles of ice cream garnished artistically with the flavoring ingredients, we shared a serving, though I normally can get by without it, and Art, who can’t, had already had his fix onboard.

The next morning, the harborfront – not the street, but the sidewalk between the street and the sea – filled with cars. Attending detailers caressed these cars with soft chamois cloths, and signs began to rise. By noon, the waterfront was a showroom for BMW, Ford, Audi, and of course Citroen and Renault. A boombox inside a booth provided background music, and we had to maneuver ourselves behind a tent filled with motor scooters to get to our passerelle (the gangway onto the boat.)

We’d planned on a short stopover of a day or two in Bandol, but decided to stay a few more days. It’s the quintessential town in the south of France: a daily, lovely outdoor market, where the offerings are as aesthetically displayed as they are delicious, shops selling flimsy cotton and linen resort wear, cafés around every corner, for a small coffee and a pain chocolat in the shade of plane trees, and the first place other than Arles where I noticed shameless marketing of Provencal paraphernalia, here in an area that isn’t actually Provence at all. We could get used to this.

It’s a holiday here, too, but our hearts are with you all on this Memorial Day weekend. Have a great holiday, and stay in touch with us, please.

Love, Karen (and Art)