This time last year I had more or less completed the first draft of the novel but I was still not entirely happy with its location, which I had placed closer to where we live, in some unnamed destination along the Riviera between Nice and Italy. I am one of those writers who use location almost as another character. If the geographical context of the story does not feel right, I am not happy. And so it was with this novel, something was not quite falling into place, until my husband took me on a jaunt to Cassis, to the area known here as Les Calanques. The Creeks. I had visited here before but not since several years and certainly not with a novel in gestation.
It was love at first sight, you might say. I knew almost instantly that I had found the setting for my story and even more so when I began to learn about the neighbourhood. This region is a National Heritage site. For many months of the year it is fairly deserted. The tourists visit in their droves during the summer months. The landscape is very dramatic, even more so when a storm blows in. It boasts the highest maritime cliff in Europe.
Beneath the water's surface are underground caves, cave paintings, dramatic shifts in the level of the sea bed, and it can be very dangerous.
I had all I needed and I set to wok to relocate the location of 'my house on the cliff'. Moving house and characters west along the French Mediterranean coast.
I returned to the 'scene of the crime' one might say this week to remind myself of details for the article I am writing. Michel and I took long walks in the pouring rain and howling winds. Yes, I thought, when the storms come in off the sea this place appears very threatening and when the sun shines it is enticing. It is a paradise where one could hide away from real life, where one could disappear.
We walked a promontory, to the tip of the presqu'ile, along le sentier Petit Prince all the way to the cap. It was a blowy morning with waves and salt spray crashing hard against the cliffs's edges. Off this coast in July 1944 is where the aviator and much-loved author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry went missing in his plane. He had set off from Corsica to recce the Mediterranean coastline of occupied France. He and his plane went out of contact, never to be found again. He was deemed killed in action. His mysterious disappearance was the cause of much international speculation. It remained an unsolved mystery until 2000 when a scuba diver off the coast of Marseille - close to where we were standing looking out to sea this week - discovered the wreckage of a plane that was later raised and identified as Saint-Exupéry's. The evidence suggests that his plane was shot down but the actual cause of his death remains an unsolved mystery. I hadn't known this story last year when I wrote my novel. A novel in which a man, a charismatic figure, goes missing off this coast close to Cassis.
This week we also discovered the remains of the Sobray Quarry in the Calanque de Port-Miou, active from 1900 to 1981.
In 2012, this whole area was granted National Park status so any trade that involves the digging up of this protected coastline is forbidden. Still, the scars and traces remain in the rocks and have become a part of its heritage, its history. I wonder might there be a story for me here? Another novel?
If you are a scuba diver Les Calanques will offer you a marine paradise. This mountainous mass of the Marseille Calanques is some twenty metres long. It boasts the highest sea cliffs in Europe. In the past, shepherds grazed their flocks here. Sheepfolds and limestone ovens are to to be found here too, though we didn't come across any.
The flora and fauna here are exceptional and mostly protected. The Calanques, creeks, play host to a unique ecosystem which is arid and limestone. Plants grow and thrive in almost no soil, jutting out directly from the chinks and cracks of limestone surfaces. The rocks are huge and impressive. Pine trees, sarsaparilla, ferns, junipers scent the air. You might be lucky and spot overhead a Bonelli's eagle. These magnificent creatures are endangered and protected now. Rare too is the eagle owl. The Sabline de Provence grass can only be found here. It exists nowhere else.
Returning this week, I became excited all over again by the sheer physical beauty of this area, and the natural riches it offers. If you don't know this part of France, I highly recommend it. If you cannot visit, I hope my novel THE HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE CLIFF will transport you right here, to this tiny corner of paradise.