This day and age people tend to put a great deal of emphasis on their 25th birthday. On this momentous occasion, us so-called ‘millennials’ take a moment to reflect on our lives and - based on the countless Facebook postings I’ve seen - go through a complete mental breakdown. They realize they are in a terrible job, working all the time, have no relationships on the horizon, can’t seem to get their life together, and the pressure is compounded by the looming “tick-tock” of youth slowly slipping through their fingers.
What do I do? How do I do it? Everyone else has their life together but me!
I remember the feeling all too well, but I can’t tell you how incredibly liberating it is to take all of those ridiculous requirements, crumple them up into a little ball, and hurl them in the trash where they belong. After years of saving and questioning my own sanity, I left my entire life behind and I don’t regret it for one second. Instead of dreading how far behind in life I am compared to my friends, here I stand at the top of France overlooking the Calanque de Morgiou and Sugiton savoring the most absolutely gorgeous coastline I've ever seen in my life.
The "real world" is overrated.
As a result of booking issues, I spent the morning of my birthday moving hostels to another place far outside of town. Under normal circumstances, hostels make it painfully obvious to find them through large signage, but my new hostel was nestled in the middle of an apartment complex without a single sign, posting, or advertisement for the damn place. After numerous entertaining “conversations” with locals and two hours of wandering in the hot sun hauling my 30 lb. backpack, I eventually figured out it was the first building I checked!
I spent an hour and a half on a wild-goose chase because of bad directions.
While I wouldn't advise spending the first half of your birthday wandering the outskirts of Marseille horribly lost, drenched in sweat, and thoroughly infuriated, little did I know what joy lied ahead this 7/11. Once I finally found the hostel, I dumped my backpack and checked the weather report to see if the boats were running to the Furiol islands. As expected, the winds were too strong and the ferries were again cancelled, so I quickly pivoted and began my journey to the calanques. The trip required a subway, bus, and one-hour walk just to get there, but I was rewarded with a sublime landscape. I can’t think of a better way to spend my birthday and I’m actually quite torn between which is more beautiful: the calanques of Southern France or Ponta de Piedade in Lagos. The calanques are far prettier than Ponta de Piedade, but Lagos still holds the title of best actual hiking. At the end of the day through, I’m really just splitting hairs, both are stunning places that should be visited at least one in your life.
I am forever grateful to my friend Stephan for the stellar recommendation.
In French, a “calanque” literally translates to “inlet” and is basically a small cove of water in the basin of a valley surrounded by steep cliffs usually made of limestone. While most people (myself included) use the terms "calanque" and "fjord" interchangeably, due to their similar form, there is actually a difference between the two. Calanques are shallow inlets formed by water erosion and found only along the Mediterranean while fjords can be found all around the world and form through glacial erosion that results in a deeper inlet.
Okay, I’m done with my “educational” section. You can open your eyes again and wipe the drool from your face.
Regardless of what you call them, once again I find myself in a situation where pictures alone do not come even remotely close in capturing the sheer beauty of the landscape. When I arrived, I didn’t have a plan for my day-long hike since various trails may or may not be closed due to the mistral, so I figured I’d just make it up as I went. I began my hike along the Calanque de Sugiton, a wondrous, almost dreamlike place you hardly expect to exist in the physical world.
After my hour-long trek downhill, I was awe-struck by the scenery. The whole thing felt like a mirage and the water alone was staggering... the WATER! Who would have thought that I could be so mesmerized something so simple! It covers 70% of the Earth’s surface, but I’ve never seen such a deep, rich, sapphire-blue color in my life! In the back of my head I kept looking for a truck nearby that was dumping gallons of blue food coloring into the small alcove. As I approached the shoreline, the water slowly changed to a clear, aquamarine along the beaches, but the deeper areas retained their intense cobalt-blue hue.
Surrounding the small inlet are majestic cliffs thrusting out from the water like giant ivory fortifications protecting a precious treasure down below. The facade of the cliffs are dotted with a multitude of green trees, and the light vegetation appeared as if it were almost pained on the bright white cliff canvas behind it. The vibrant contrast between the azure water, chalky white limestone, and radiant green trees is a breathtaking feast for the eyes.
I could not have asked for a more perfect day to go hiking. The light blue sky was completely devoid of clouds and, coupled with the alabaster white cliffs, it was almost blindingly bright. From high above, the mistral coursed through the valley relentlessly, but was just the thing a tired, overheated hiker craves. Without fail, every time I began perspiring, a swift gust of refreshing air would rush past me, instantly cooling me off. Further down in the valley, the numerous trees and large boulders surrounding the bottom of the calanque blocked the wind allowing people to take a swim in the chilly water.
Personally I don’t know how they did it. The minute I put my feet in the water they went numb.
As I sat on one of the cliffs with my feet dangling over the edge, I was entranced by the surface of the water, I could literally see the wind passing over it. Each gust of air created thousands of tiny ripples that shimmered like diamonds under the bright sun and served to reinforced the water’s jewel-like appearance. The collection of tiny waves moved rapidly along the surface like a school of fish; changing directions erratically based on the movement of the air above. From this distance the water itself was alive with energy. It was a mesmerizing spectacle to behold and reminded me of the music visualizers you find on computers. I sat there for the better part of an hour completely engrossed in the mind-bogglingly beautiful landscape that lied before of me.
I had no other thoughts… just a giant grin on my face.
Off to my right was a tranquil little alcove crammed full of people. There is no sand on this little beach - only pebbles - but every single square inch of the tiny beach was covered in sunbathers and those brave enough to submerge themselves in the deceptively icy water. Due to the limited real-estate, people were sprawled out along the small rock cliffs that line the perimeter of the beach like birds on a telephone line. The scene was the epitome of serenity. Far off in the distance the sound of teenagers yelling at each other echoed in the background. They stood grouped together on a towering rock island near the shoreline attempting to peer pressure each other in to jumping off into the water.
From the basin of the Calanque de Sugiton I made my way up the mountain to get a view of the adjacent Calanque de Morgiou to the west. The hike up was delightful thanks to the breeze, but as I slowly ascended, the power of the wind became a force to reckon with. What I encountered up at the Notre-Dame de la Garde was child’s play by comparison. By the time I reached the top, it felt as if I was standing on the bow of a speedboat and the torrent of air felt as if I was repeatedly being punched in the face. My eyes immediately teared up and I was forced to use the handrails just to stay upright. While the intensity of the wind would ebb and flow, when it really got going, the force was so great that the straps on my daypack would sting me as they flailed in the torrential wind.
Eventually I acclimated to the conditions and perched myself atop a little stone table to take in the wonderful view. Spectacular doesn’t even begin to describe it. In front of me the deep, navy blue sea went on endlessly and was covered in waves as the ferocious mistral pummeled the surface of the water. The giant mountains surrounding me were brilliantly illuminated and took on a light golden hue as the sun slowly set. The contrast between the limestone giants and the rushing water is something that I will never forget.
Periodically, a few other hikers would make their way up to take in the view, but there were two guys in particular I am especially grateful for. As they ascended, I could hear a faint untz, untz, untz sound emanating from their portable speaker and immediately began smiling… it was the only thing I was missing - music. After a few minutes the track Intro by The XX began playing and a chill ran down my spine. This song perfectly encapsulated the tranquil, majestic, and endless vista around me. Normally I associate songs with time periods in my life based off of the first time I hear a track, but ever since that moment, whenever I hear Intro I am immediately transported to the top of that mountain.
Even though the music eventually ended and the two hikers made their way back down, I sat at the top for almost three hours watching the sun slowly disappear behind the adjacent mountains. I could not believe I was actually here, of all the endless possible ways my 25th birthday could have played out, never would I have conceived of a series of events that would allow me to celebrate my 25th birthday on top of a mountain overlooking the calanques of Southern France. While I hope there are many, many more birthdays in my future, my 25th will forever stand out in my mind as one of the greatest.
Now I know this post is almost six months after my original Quarter Century Reflections entry, but I feel another quote is in order. Permit me to pass along this little gift that was generously given to me by a friend and old coworker, Melissa. It is a quote from the Dalai Lama when he was asked what surprised him most about humanity and I feel it accurately summarizes my feelings as I enter my 25th year of existence:
"Man.... sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”
While people back home may be swayed by the garbage on Facebook proclaiming all the things you should have done by 25 and how behind in life you are, I couldn’t care less. There is really no greater joy than doing exactly what you want with the time you’re given on this Earth.
Here’s to another great year!