#630. Un-destination Provence : a day around Etang de Berre

By pascaljappy | Travel Photography

Aug 11

Marseilles strikes me as the ideal location for a photographic workshop. With a huge variety of subjects, impressive weather stats and easy access, but having not yet suffered the fate of Iceland as the obligatory go to destination for the serious tog, it strikes a perfect balance for anyone in search of easy novelty.



Avignon and the nearby villages of the Luberon are pretty too. The calanques are drop dead gorgeous (and out-of-bounds all summer because of extremely high forest fire risks).



Yes, Provence is a haven for photographers. None of these places, however, qualify as un-destination. Not in the same way as Aigues-Mortes, which Philippe and I already explored in this context, for example.



For those new to the thread, a quick flashback : un-destination is a concept initiated by co-author Philippe, which hinges on 3 main principles :

  • Beautiful in its own way
  • Out of the beaten path for all but local togs
  • Challenging, because of its lack of iconic features

In a way, and in spite of being world-famous, Aix-en-Provence could almost qualify because it is quite difficult to photograph. Almost.


Pétanque, Carro


The Etang de Berre, however, is smack in the zone.

If you’ve ever flown into Marseilles, it’s quite likely you’ll have peered down from the window at the salt pans, refineries and super tankers that would make most sensible people run away. And, indeed, some areas are really smelly and probably abundantly polluted.

But …

… even at the height of the busy summer period, the étang is blissfully quiet and free of mass tourism, overshadowed as it is by its more illustrious must-see neighbours. Which is great news for those who venture out in search of a less pretty but more authentic Southern-France vibe.




Here, Pétanque is not a celebrity recreation for show but a living, breathing essential uniting up to 4 generations of loud friends under a scorching sun. Lovely stone village walls echo the burbling sound of century-old fountains rather than the radios of ice-cream shops. And beaches are havens for families and fishermen.


So here’s a brief tour of a few interesting sites representing a variety of subjects and habitats, located around the Etang.



The map show Martigues, the largest point of interest in the area and worthy of some great photography itself, but mostly a nice place for some local culture, out-of-the-way and surprisingly good museums and very decent food.

It (the map) also points to Miramas, for those needing a helping hand to convince families of how indispensable this trip is. The outlet village in Miramas was recently opened to the public and looks like a Disneyland section devoted to dreamland Provence. You’ll shop famous brands at heavy discounts, eat and visit exhibitions. It’s all well orchestrated and a hoot for shoppers and kids.




But the red camera icons are what this post is about.

They point to an arbitrary selection of interesting points to visit for purely photographic reasons. I’ll just write a few lines about each and the photographs below (plus a couple above) give you some indication of what to expect.

Niolon and Carro are two villages on the Côte Bleu (blue coast) West of Marseilles. Nowhere near as famous as the calanques, they don’t offer the same postcard approach but provide much more varied subject matter.  Niolon is a tiny village with very good low-key restaurants and a great coastal walk to nearby villages (see pic above). Carro is a bigger settlement but still unknown to mass tourism and having no intention to change anything about that. See below, and pétanque shot, above.




Cornillon-Confoux is a hidden gem. Every bit as beautiful as Gordes or Le Castelet, without the crowds, snobs or inflated prices, it is a hilltop village made of stone. That’s all I’ll say. See street view, above and panorama, below.




Les Pennes-Mirabeau sits on the outskirts of Marseilles and probably sleeps many who work there. It is also (at the moment) a living testament to the devastation of forest fires in the region. Built along a ridge, it offers narrow streets where people actually live and a couple of windmills. A real village vibe rather than the doll house feeling you get in many of the more famous locations in the Luberon, for instance.



Les Pennes Mirabeau

Les Pennes Mirabeau

Les Pennes Mirabeau


Ventabren is the final stop on this list. Like Cornillon-Confoux, it is a perched village but its hilltop is slightly more lazy and the village is slightly less visually impeccable. Still very much worth a stop though. Plus, it boasts not one but two impressive bridges. An aqueduct (below) used to bring water into nearby Aix en Provence and a second, more modern one used to support the Paris – Marseille TGV line.


Near Ventabren


None of the places mentioned above would appear in major tourist guides or photo TOP 100 must shoot before you die lists. Good. As a day trip, they provide a lot of variety and a real panorama of the local culture. Their beauty is that you can take them all in on a long summer’s day or over two crisp chilly winter days. They come alive in torrential sunlight and dramatic contrast. No need to wait for a golden hour to get the best out of them. They’re just a personal selection, a starting point for the exploration of this area that can seem drab for a few miles and lead to a wonderful discovery minutes later.



You’ll have noticed I did nothing to attract Google’s attention on this post. No flashy titles, no nothing that SEO gurus would salivate about. And I’m asking you not to share this post, except if you trust the person you’re sharing with and her true interest in photographing the area. The people living in these places still enjoy the rarest of joys, freedom from public knowledge and attention. Considering the mainly US readership of this blog, I’m guessing this article will interest at most a few hundred people and will motivate a small handful to act over the coming years. I hope the handful love what they see, and let’s keep it that way 🙂



The beauty of un-destination is that there is so much of it. We’ll be publishing more and more as we go along. Contributions on your side are most welcome too 🙂 What’s your favourite hidden spot ? Care to share a few words and pics ?


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  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Perhaps I could arrange for my wife to act as navigator – with her astonishingly effective un-navigational skills, she’d keep you in un-destinations until the rescue party sent out to find out what has become of you manages to find where you ended up!

    I can’t see what the problem is, to be frank about it. Europe is DROWNING in un-destinations. All you need to do is to get off the A9 and keep your eyes open. Use secondary and tertiary roads – they all connect with wherever, sooner or later, and in the meantime, as your car rolls along them, you will see things you never imagined. On the other hand, if every time you turn a corner you run slap bang into Notre Dame or the Tour Eiffel, you can scarcely complain – it’s only happening because you “must have taken a wrong turn at the last corner”, as my driver said to one of his friends, to explain why he’d driven along the sidewalk and come to rest, with the front of his car crushing a “no parking” sign, when I foolishly accepted the offer of a lift in his car, from a local resident in Tasmania. (Tasmania is where Australia keeps all its inbred people, with strange thought processes and weird behaviour patterns – lovely to look at, nice food, and completely bats!)

    • pascaljappy says:

      Well, there is no problem with Europe itself 😉 The problem lies with websites that only promote the famous and the iconic. If DS makes 1% of its readers discover new places, I’ll be a happy camper 🙂

      • Fabrizio Giudici says:

        Agree with the previous comments…

        The problem lies with websites that only promote the famous and the iconic.

        I’m going to write an egoistical thought… 🙂 Is it a “problem”? If also the un-destinations were promoted as primary targets, would they still be un-destinations?

        Just a few examples to give some context.

        A few weeks ago one of the major Italian newspapers published an article titled “Maldives at one hour from Milan”. It was a photographic service about a village in a less known valley in Canton Ticino (Switzerland): typical un-destination, a lovely group of houses and some small gorges of a nearby river, whose waters have blue-green reflections. First note the intrinsic dumbness of the title: what this has possibly to do with Maldives, a place in Indian Ocean? In dumbitalian, “Maldives” is quickly associated with “lovely place with waters with blue-green reflections” (BTW something that you can find in many places of Italy, France, Croatia, etc… without going to the other end of the world). Still, a few days later, tons of people from Milan rushed to that place. A further photographic service depicted the place, once probably intimate and quiet, turned into a sort of Aqualand. Sad. Fortunately, it’s the kind of thing that is forgotten in a matter of a season, so I hope that the place will soon recover its pristine nature.

        I can make more examples from my personal experience. I’m presently spending the month of August in Tuscan Maremma, where I’ve been since I was a little child. In 1979 when I looked out of the window I could see the medieval village over a hill, the sea at its feet, a few kilometres of beach with a majestic pinewood and some flatland where I saw for the first time shepherds and their flocks of sheep (I can recall I first smelled sheep at that time). The village was at the beginning of its touristic exploitation – a decade earlier it was one of the latest places in Italy where there were malaria cases, because of the nearby marshes) – and there was a quiet and educated kind of tourism. Almost forty years later, I’m not saying that it has been totally ruined from the landscape point of view – I wouldn’t be still there – but the flatland has been filled with houses and a couple of supermarkets. The place is well known in the whole country, unfortunately at the top of some destination lists; a former Prime Minister has just spent his vacations here. It’s not yet “iconic”, but I fear it could soon become. Beaches are packed with people, and noisy (I’ve personally stopped going to the beach fifteen years ago – I only enjoy beaches from October to April, where they are still pristine). Marshes were first drowned and flooded again after malaria was eradicated; they turned into an important wildlife sanctuary (I can see flamingos flying just five minutes from house). That’s good, an improvement over time. But the sanctuary has become popular too – they had to limit access and forbid it in most sensitive areas.

        A few kilometres from here there is a very small bay with a small beach. For a long time it was semi-deserted, because you had to walk for longer than a hour to reach it. It was a little jewel. Fifteen years ago they built a road – direct car access still prohibited, but they introduced a shuttle, and people started taking advantage of it. The last time I was there it was noisy and getting dirty because of rude people. Given that when I drive nearby the shuttle endpoint I see the park filled with hundreds of cars, I can only imagine what it has further turned into.

        Not counting that this Summer the area is being targeted by a storm of man-made fires, because there are crazy persons around who enjoy devastating famous places.

        That’s why I don’t feel guilty with my original egoistical consideration. On one side, I’d be happy to see as many people as possible enjoy my favourite un-destinations. But in order to preserve un-destinations, they must be only visited by educated people. But most people are rude.

        Fortunately, as Jean Pierre said, Europe is packed with un-destinations, and if a few are “discovered” and ruined, we still have plenty of…

        • jean pierre {pete} guaron says:

          I know exactly what you mean, Fabrizio – when I was a kid, we used to go to a forgotten beach, off the main road (down a dirt side road that you wouldn’t think to turn onto, from the main road). Until about 30-40 years earlier, it had been a local port, but it was abandoned. Pristine. Idyllic. Unbelievably beautiful. Not a speck of litter, not even so much as a human footprint (till we arrived, of course). The cleanest ocean water you could imagine. The cleanest, whitest sand. The stuff that memories are made of.

          Years later, I went “back” – except things had changed so much, “back” was somewhere that no longer existed. All the way to the beach, along the side road, there were cheap, revolting, garishly coloured holiday “homes”. The beach was smothered with litter. There were hordes of people crawling all over everything. And my dream was destroyed in a snap of the fingers.

          Perhaps we need to form a society for protection & preservation of un-destinations! 🙂

        • pascaljappy says:

          Very interesting Fabrizio,

          I guess if a very famous magasine talked about an undestination, it would become famous and no longer an undestination. And the examples you give are indeed very sad.

          I think there are two important aspects to consider :
          * As you say “a quiet and educated kind of tourism” is not a bad thing. We’re not a mass tourism media but a low-volume photography blog.
          * More importantly, all the places we mention as un-destinations are not “unknown paradises” that are likely to draw crowds even if they did become famous. They are authentic-feeling locations that can only appeal to a specific type of photographer.

          There’s nothing selfish about wanting to preserve a place you love, I really understand your point and hope this bay stays healthy and beautiful.


  • philberphoto says:

    A great un-destination! Although if my memory serves, we said that qualifying for this hallowed selection also requires that the place not be hideously expensive. Otherwise, the Moon and planet Mars are un-destinations! And it needs to be rich and diverse in opportunities, which eliminates free-way eateries and such like..:-)
    Still, Provence is hugely attractive. If only I could find a photo-buddy to shoot with! Well, in another life, maybe…

    Because all this talk about un-destination is just that, talk, until we actually go out and shoot. This is the one thing that saddens me about DearSusan. Feed-back is much more abundant following a gear post than after the uncovering of a great un-destination, or about topics that really matter, like composition.

    In the scheme of things, what remains with us? The lens we bought or sold? The time we were tired because of a long hike or an inordinately early early rise? Or the pictures we took, because we were actually there, camera in hand awake and aware?

    I rest my case.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thanks Philippe,

      yes, you are right, I forgot about thet cheapness criterion. Those areas, being free of tourism, should be cheap, but I didn’t check. Except for Niolon, which has very affordable restaurants.

      I look forward to visiting with you 😉

  • Adam Bonn says:

    Great images Pascal,

    The un-destination concept continues to intrigue me, I’m trying to think of my own, which is tricky.

    Un-destinations here (and in my UK hometown) are pretty suburban or at least tricky to get without a car (and I have no car!)!

    A few of your images I’ve seen (not here so much), that don’t have anything in them to give a location, look a little like Portugal.

    Perhaps that’s the fruit of an un-destination, it’s actually the same as a lonelyoverpopulated planet guide one, but without the one or two things that make it famous

    Are Nimes and Beziers still a bit of an un-destination? (in a bit of a stretch sort of way) – we went in Oct 2010 and pretty much had the place to ourselves

    I fear Philippe is right – people are more interested in gear these days….

    “I shot Elvis riding the Loch Ness Monster in Wallmart”
    What camera was that taken with?

    At first I thought it was just because my site appeals to X-Pro users and that’s all they want to read about, but it’s not is it, that’s just how it is

    Back to un-destinations – the cynic in me thinks that a list of places that budget airlines don’t land at might be a good start

    • jean pierre {pete} guaron says:

      When I was there in May, Adam, Nimes and Beziers were mostly locals, although the tide of tourists (me included!) had started. In the evenings, the tourists seemed to stay indoors and actually, Nimes itself was fairly deserted in most parts of the centre after dark.

      Undestinations abound, though. Find where the tourists are headed and turn in a different direction. I remember wandering into a church in Rome, just simply to find a place to sit for a few minutes, and being practically “captured” by the janitor or whatever he was (he was a layman, not a priest), who wouldn’t let me leave till he had shown me all the amazing things in his church. And explained his behaviour by telling me it USED to be a major church – erected in fact to celebrate the delivery of Rome from the black plague, c. 13th century – but that there was no longer a congregation (the people had moved and the houses replaced with factories or warehouses), and it was only being used for one single commemorative service each year. The stuff in the place was unbelievable!

      And that’s not an isolated experience – not unique – actually it has been quite common, for me, while I am traveling around Europe.

      Apart from which – I’ve never done as I was told, and I take being told we shouldn’t shoot icons as a challenge. Maybe there ARE a trillion photos of the Tour Eiffel – none, however, apart from mine, with my wife’s face in the picture and half of Paris bokeh-ed in the background, when we were on our honeymoon. And even if it’s cliched, it’s still a good photo – not ‘avant garde’ perhaps, but a good photo nonetheless. Also my photo of the statue of Charlemagne in front of Notre Dame – none of the other trillion photos has the toilet brush that I noticed, wedged in the king’s stirrup!

    • pascaljappy says:

      It’s really a concept we came up with to describe areas that are interesting for photographers who want to shoot something different. So, basically, places that offer real photo opps that wouldn’t attract ordinary tourists and don’t cost an arm and a leg.

      There are plenty of empty places but few are really interesting from a photographic point of view. That’s the central concept in un-destination.

      The villages described abova have little visual intrusion from sign posts, poles … so it’s really possible to create unspoiled photographs of interesting subjects. There are plenty of remote places but not all of them are interesting for a photographer. It’s subjective but those are, although they would hardly appeal to your average tourist 😉

      Nimes is very pretty and very famous. Still worth a visit off season. Arles is quieter (unless there is a festival on) and much more difficult to photograph. Probably worthwhile for someone determined though 😉

      • Adrian says:

        Pascal and Pete: I think it applies to “attractions” just as much as places. Pete’s comments about churches reminded me that opposite Wat Po and the Grand Place in Bangkok is another temple. It’s a major “teaching” temple, but not often visited by tourists as it’s not in most of the guide books. It’s a lovely place, and as the novice monks learning English there, it’s not uncommon for them to want to talk with you. I often drop in there if I am in the area for some “sanity” away from the thronging hoards and coaches outside the nearby guidebook destinations – the last time I did I came across a family who had gone to pay respects to their dead relative who kindly invited me to join them in some food and drink to commemorate their relative beside the grave marker. It was far better than being corralled through a guidebook attraction, and far more memorable. So as Pete points out, even in busy tourist locations, a few minutes walk can reveal all sorts of interesting things and memorable experiences. Holidays, travel and tourism should be about discovery and creating memories, not a military mission to cram in all the guide book recommendations.

        • pascaljappy says:

          Indeed. This reminds me of a visit to a Sikh temple in KL where we were treated like kings by people who’d never seen us before and knew we didn’t share their religious education. Amazing memories.

  • Bob Hamilton says:

    Great and sympathetic article.


  • Fabrizio Giudici says:

    We’re not a mass tourism media but a low-volume photography blog.

    I know – otherwise I wouldn’t be there 😉 Usually I find myself commenting only on this kind of places. The last time I tried to stay on a hugely populated sote I scared myself by re-reading my own older comments – sometimes the place was pulling the worst out of myself, and I flied away.

    They are authentic-feeling locations that can only appeal to a specific type of photographer.

    It’s true, but in some cases those locations might become “popular” for indirect reasons…

    Anyway, you asked for sharing some pic and comments… Here are three picks, from Italy, France and Switzerland. They have a common feature: all of them are just a few kilometres from famous and touristic places.

    The graveyard is in Val d’Orcia. But it’s along a white road, and most people don’t dare enough. Each time I go in Val d’Orcia I pay a visit to that place… and each time I’m rewarded with some very good shots of many low-profile, “useless” things around.

    The alpine scene with the funny – and for somebody scary – bridge is in Alpes-de-Haute-Provence. To see it people should take a short detour from one of the most important alpine passes between Italy and France, but they probably are always too in a hurry to care for it.

    The lonely tree in the middle of the water is near the border of a very famous Swiss-French lake (but in Switzerland). I think it’s somewhat famous, for sure more famous than the two previous subjects. But each time I’m there I don’t see many photographers taking care of it.




    PS I really like the “un-destination” word… and considering of creating a specific gallery on my website. Did you put any trademark on the word? 😉

    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      Awesome photos, Fabrizio!!!

      Your mention of white roads struck a chord. On my first trip to Italy, I dropped in on some friends in the country, about 140 Km north of Venice only meant to say “hello” and keep travelling, but ended up staying there for a couple of months, and spent so much time on “white roads” or on other minor roads. And was gob-smacked by what I “discovered’. Of course they all knew what was there, probably knew it all before I was even born, but for me it was simply an amazing experience. Which has left me with a feeling that the shortest distance to un-destinations is to abandon the tourist trail altogether, and try to “live like the natives”.

      The second one reminded me of our trip to the Lario – I went off the main road, down a track that ended up too narrow to continue in the car (even though it was a Fiat 500), so we abandoned the car and continued on foot – eventually we found the remains of an old mill and shortly afterwards, an old roman bridge over a stream. Gasp! You’d never find that in Bellagio or any of the other tourist resorts around the lake, even if they do have very nice restaurants there.

      Of course part of the problem is the pressure of modern life – giving rise to the “If it’s Tuesday, it must be Belgium” syndrome. And the way so many tourists “see Europe through the eye of the viewfinder of a Kodak Instamatic” (sorry – I know that’s old fashioned – these days, they just see the world in the background of the shots they take with their cellphones and selfie sticks). We need to get back to the idea of slowing down enough, or stopping, so that we can smell the flowers.

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