#1085. A photographic walk in the Calanques

By pascaljappy | Travel Photography

Jan 28

It would be a stretch to describe the Calanques National Park, near Marseilles, as un undestination. But it definitely is a backyard gem for me. Located roughly 30 minutes from home, and offering landscapes that rival most dreaded ‘gram favourites, it makes me feel ashamed of never devoting a post to the area before. Let’s right this wrong 🙂

Port-Miou, near Cassis
 

The term Calanque refers to a small fjord-like sea inlet found in the immediate vicinity of Marseilles, some measuring a few tens of meters, others extending up to a half-mile. Those pocket-sized universes are paradises for local divers, sea kayaks, hikers and, obviously, photographers.

The National Park that hosts them is fairly small compared to those in our mountains, but is also the only one in the country to cover terrestrial, underwater and urban areas.

And, in spite of its dimensions, the park does offer quite different views and vibes along the various hiking routes it offers, including the long, direct, walk from one end to the other. Active hikers and runners with big lungs do the very hilly crossing in the day, but most other visitors, particularly photographers, prefer to tackle it in in smaller bytes.

Port-Miou, near Cassis
 

The photographs in this post are all made in three neighbour calanques : Port-Miou, which actually serves as a natural harbour for the Cassis Yacht Club, Port-Pin, which is a lovely sandy beach, often more crowded than the Internet on Black Friday, and En Vau, a deep and narrow cut in the sandstone cliffs that ends in a tiny sheltered sand beach accessible only by boat or via a several-mile-long walk from the road.

If these photographs convince you of the necessity of a visit, do bear in mind that all the area (as many others in Provence) are strictly off-limits throughout the summer because of the high risk of forest fires. Visitors to En Vau were once trapped by flames and could only escape via the sea.

In the winter, you’ll often meet brass monkeys looking for their bits because the wind can get fierce and is bitterly cold. During the tranquil mid-January walk that yielded those photographs, temperatures oscillated from semi-tropical as the sun baked us while we ate carefully wedged in stony outcrops and sheltered from the wind, to glacial in the opposite conditions. If you’re visiting in winter, remember to dress like the proverbial onion 😉

 

Another reason for shying away from a winter visit could be the quality of the light. Mediterranean winters offer crisp, transparent air which leads to extremely brutal light.

I love it. I can’t get enough of that sort of light. It makes me feel so alive and, because the sun stays low in the sky, the scenery retains its strong colours, in spite of the deep shadows. But those raised on a steady diet of golden hour and fog might recoil in horror 😉 For those people, a sunset is always a glorious proposition here, as the Cap Canaille, that slightly redish cliff in the background above starts to glow bright orange and red. Those who have seen Uluru and Mount Augustus know what I’m talking about.

So: fire in summer, wind and light in winter. Spring in Provence is typically the wettest time of the year. But the days are longer and the air more humid, softening the lighting to a point most might be more happy with. Autumn/fall is generally fantastic in the area. Warm, with incredible sunsets and leaf colours (well, not in the Calanques, as all the trees are pines, but the oak covered hills are definitely yummy). Also, the less windy periods of spring, summer and autumn will provide some of the most transparent waters anywhere, whereas the bigger waves of winter stir up the sand. Still, of all the seasons, I feel winter suits the Calanques’s rocky vibe the best.

Port-Miou, near Cassis
Port-Pin
En-Vau
En-Vau
En Vau
 

One fellow hiker/photographer was using a polarizer and my internal jury is still out about that one. On the one side, the removal of glare makes a strong case for it. On the other, the possibility of deeper shadows doesn’t. While I went all out in the monochrome photographs, deep shadows don’t look nice in a naturalistic style in colour.

So, not for me. I find polarizers more appealing a bit later in the day, before sunset, for example, to wring the last ounce of gold out of a landscape. At midday, my approach is to embrace the light as it is. It is, after all, what we are photographing.

But yeah, your mileage might vary and a polarizer might be something worth considering, if ever you’re visiting the area on such a winter’s day.

Port-Miou, style 1
Port-Miou, style 2

If you do visit, leave yourself some time for Cassis itself. Although it is an unlivable hell-hole during tourist season, it’s also a charming little village linked to La Ciotat (much nicer, year round, if you ask me) by the abfab Route des Cretes, one of the prettiest roads in France.

And be sure to write to me, I’ll tag along 🙂

Unrelated P.S.

There’s a new camera on the block. One I thought of writing a post about. On second thought, it doesn’t deserve the time and effort. For a company that has recently released fantastic, useful, innovative and gorgeous IQ products, this – to me – feels like a major step back into fomo product design and old zero-sum-game demons that are bringing the industry to its knees. Pixii, Alice, Z-Cam and others out there thinking out of the box, get a move on. The creative world has never needed you more.

 

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  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    100% with you on the subject of “light”. People scream about the quality of light here, in Australia – ANYWHERE in Australia – but it’s what I’m used to and I adore it.

    Not so sure about your comments about polaroid filters – for one thing, simply leaving them on the lens does no major harm, it merely acts like an ND filter. So when you CAN use it, it’s there. And you can decide for yourself, on the spot, whether it’s improving or ruining the image.

    Having said that, I must admit that although I have a range of them for my various different lenses, I rarely use them. Like UV filters, they aren’t as important, when you shoot digital.

    You’re fortunate – given the changes in the weather, the restrictions at certain times of the year, etc, you can pick and choose when you go there. Not so easy when you’re travelling – “if it’s Tuesday, it must be Belgium”? – and you have to accept whatever the weather & the light is like, when you are there.

    Which is, in fact, why I like shooting around where I live. Someone once told me it’s impossible and nobody does it anyway. Crap – twice over. Maybe my shoot rate plummets – I can’t think of anything nearby that would average over a hundred photos a day – but then I have more days, here, to shoot in. And here, at least, I can choose the time of day, the weather, the lighting, etc. As indeed, you have done, here, with these photos, Pascal.

    The third photo would, I think, have my geologist friend sitting bolt upright. It’s very suggestive of deep tectonic plat movements both here and under the sea, offshore

    • pascaljappy says:

      Ah the ligth in WA. It probably goes a long way towards explaining why it’s my fave place on Earth. The light on the first morning of my first trip will stay with me for as long as my brain is able to remember things. It was one of those revelatory moments. It’s bright, colourful and so deeply soothing.

      This is Europe, remember. Where you can go on a Tuesday morning depends on your marital status, age, last letter of the permit you never knew was required and the mood of the bloke at the toll booth 😉

      Off the top of my head, Cottesloe, Freo, Hillary’s, Pinnacles, Mandurah, York, Lesmurdie, Yanchep, King’s Park, Gingin, Guidlford, Swan Valley, Bibulmun track, Maggie, Bussleton, Augusta, Denmark, Stirling Ranges … there 1500 photographs 🙂
      Cheers

  • Lad Sessions says:

    Pascal,

    These are lovely images of an interesting piece of geology. It would be a joy to visit, if only I could get there when others were noticeable by their absence (except for you as a guide!). Thank you for the illuminating travelogue.

    I’m with Pete: Get to to know your own area, intimately, at all times, conditions and lights. Unless you are a professional, travel photography is a crap-shoot of conditions (even so, good images can magically appear; not the best possible under ideal lighting and placement, perhaps, but good enough to summon fond memories). We’ve been around Australia a few times, and enjoyed the vistas, though I will confess I still prefer the more vertical landscapes of NZ.

    Lad

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you Lad. Yes, Australia is rather flat 😀 And the same landscape can go on for hours, even of fast driving. They are two very different countries. But there’s a sense of freedom in WA I’ve never experience elsewhere.

      Cheers. Pascal

      • Lad Sessions says:

        Agreed, though I think the SW in the US might yield the same experience.

      • PaulB says:

        Pascal

        You are probably correct. US Route 66 is not as desolate as it once was. In the US Southwest would need to be on one of the side roads to approach the desolation and alone-nes that I imagine Western Australia gives you. US Route 395 or US Route 50 across Nevada may come close. Nevada is pretty empty when you get away from the big cities.

        PaulB

        • pascaljappy says:

          Very true, Paul.

          In a drive from Flagstaff to Canyon de Chelly, we took the back roads and loved every second of them. It wasn’t as remote as the Gibson desert, but the feeling of being part of nature was every bit as strong as anything I’ve experienced in Oz. Same thing with the Apache trail. Not very remote, but very immersive and beautiful. And fantastic people.

          The thing with WA is that there is something about the gentle wilderness that really sooths me. I can’t explain it, but over my 4 visits, it’s always been the same. A few hours “away from it all” just wash away all my tension. I’m not a very adventurous person and don’t seek danger for the sake of it, so my experience of WA is simply of driving between villages on small roads or tracks. Easy but so relaxing.

          Cheers

  • Dennis says:

    From the back of the classroom: I’m pretty shy/humble about offering any advice to this forum but: polarizers…. Like Pete I’ve found they are much less useful in the digital age vs Velvia 50 days. But some common notes… 1. best way to ruin a stitched panorama with sky in it- No 2. want water surface, color, specular highlights-No 3. want to see into the water depths-Yes 4. fall foliage-Yes 5. little to no effect if not composing close to 90 degrees from the sun. And I need to reevaluate the effect on shadows and time of day– thank you Pascal. Love turquoise waters, the last wave pano lovely!

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thanks Dennis, no need to be shy, this seems like excellent advice summary and very usefull to keep in mind. In a place such as the Calanques, the water can be crystal clear, so a polariser would help you see right down to the bottom, that gets deep very quickly, with fantastic colour gradations. Maybe I need to get one after all 😉 Cheers, Pascal

  • Lani says:

    Definitely a place of stark, unforgiving beauty or at least, the images you chose to feature, embraces that.

    I have recently fallen in love with flat light, cause if I have to wait for that magical golden light here in Ohio, I might as well start using my camera as a paperweight….

    Different light have so many alternative narratives and I do like the challenge it presents. Brutal, flat and everything in between? Yes please 🙂

    • pascaljappy says:

      Exactly. A lot of wonderful images can be made at golden hour but, ultimately they all tend to look alike. Whereas a soft pastel day, or a completely flat grey day, or a blue hour, or a brutal Antonioni-style summer day, … all bring a different mood to the photograph rather than limiting us to a standard recipe. Cheers 🙂

  • Nancee Rostad says:

    There’s no need for California Dreaming when one could do some serious Calanque dreaming instead. Your lovely images brought back wonderful ‘souvenirs’ of a trip to the region 15 or so years ago. I’ll always remember the boat ride through several of the calanques where we enjoyed the peace and beauty of the unique landscape. Several friends elected to take the overland walk back to town which began with a rugged climb out of the up a near vertical cliff. I felt quite smug, and far less sweaty, as I was ferried back to town. Hours later, our friends stumbled their way through the brush and back to town for showers before joining me for aperitifs. For the life of me, I cannot remember the name of the town where we stayed, but due to your travelogue and atmospheric images, I remember the experience perfectly. Thanks for sharing, Pascal!

  • PaulB says:

    Pascal

    Wonderful images and prose as usual. Marseille and the surrounding areas are now on my list of places to visit for a future European adventure. The light you have presented looks very similar to what we got when I was growing up during winters in Las Vegas, stark and clear; which was before Vegas went on the big boom cycle and the air pollution that comes with it.

    Concerning pola-rock* filters, I find that their desirability depends on the lenses I am using. With film and Japanese (Nikon, Canon, Pentax, etc.) lenses I used them constantly to reduce contrast and improve tonality. With German lenses I found that I did not want a pola-rock unless I wanted to darken the sky. The more I use the Lumix G9 (and my Sony before the G9) I am returning to the idea of having a pola-rock on each lens constantly for daylight shooting to improve tonality and reduce contrast. This may prove to be more sensor than lens dependent, as the G9’s sensor is not the dynamic range powerhouse that most larger and newer sensors are.

    *The original definition of the polarizing filter as developed by the founders of Flintstones School of Photography (a.k.a. Fred and Barney).

    PS. I will definitely send you a note before I visit.

  • pascaljappy says:

    Ah, very interesting !! I had no idea that the lenses made a difference. But it makes sense, given how they affect global and local contrast. And yes, sensors with less DR will probably benefit more. I hadn’t thought about that either 😉 I’m not big with those filters because they tend to dull b&w photographs which represent most of my production. But with my recent interest in video, it could make sense to try again …

    Looking forward to your visit 😉

    Cheers

  • Claude Hurlbert says:

    What great images, Pascal. Speaking of light, since we are, I stopped at “Port-Miou, style 2” especially for the way you brought the symmetry of the boats and the brilliance of the light into a synchrony that produces a startling (in the best senses the word) image. I mean, there are photos of docked sailboats or yachts, but then there are ones such as yours that do more, that, for instance, remind an observer to stop in the presence of order and light, to be in and with that order and light so as to bring something of them into one’s life. I admire your photo very much. I also like your En-Vau photos very much: wonderful texture, tonality–and again, light. Speaking of which. As I live in Pittsburgh, and therefore not far from Lani’s Ohio, I, too, have come to accept the gift of flat light. As Lani above said, or as I paraphrase her here, different kinds light offer access to different narratives. To put this another way, we can chase light—and sometimes there is good reason to do so—or we can decide to be in and with the light we have—and sometimes there is better reason to do so.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Aaah, I’m so glad you like that monochrome photograph and see the same things in it as I do. There are scenes that just stop me right there and make me photograph them. There’s nothing spectacular or rare in the frame, but the whole feels balanced and alive to me. I love light and balance above all in photography and that is why that type of photograph appeals to me. Everything just feels like it falls into place spontaneously and naturally. There’s no deep meaning or fancy message, but it all feels right.

      Cheers 🙂

      • Claude Hurlbert says:

        Exactly right, Pascal. That image feels right. And in a world that seems so utterly disorderly (as in it can so many times feels like it is coming undone), an artistic work that suggests a sense of order, can feel, if even for a moment, like—I don’t know—a respite, a relief—even a memory of order, or a dream of it, or a suggestion of the restorative power of design. It probably doesn’t need to say anything more.

  • Hank says:

    I have good memories of this area, when I used to live in Hamburg Germany, and had the opportunity to go to Cannes for business every winter for a week or so. Cassis was always the destination afterwards – mostly closed, very few people, and the few open restaurants and bars and hotels were very (VERY!) glad to see you. I was going through a “non-photography” phase then, and cell phones weren’t yet around, so very few photos, but lots of good memories.

    Later, I had in-laws who lived in Marseilles. That town is a trip!
    Wonderful photos, thank you!

    • pascaljappy says:

      Indeed, Hank. Marseilles is a tremendous photographic destination. I’m glad you have great memories of Cassis, it is full of charm and the surrounding hills can be glorious in the right conditions. You visited off season, which is the best way to do it 😉 It can get very busy at some periods of the year. Thank you for the kind words 🙂

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