dinosaur istres entranceDinosaur'Istres is a free, open-access circuit with 41 life-sized resin models of different dinosaur species, all set in beautiful surroundings by a large lake and in a hilly pine forest.

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In the town of Istres, near Marseille, Arles and Aix en Provence, this mini Jurassic Park is a fun and educational excursion for families with young children. And the views across the lake from the hill are splendid.

Dinosaur'Istres (sic: this is another of those funny French names with surplus apostrophes) has proved a huge hit since it first opened in 2017, so much so that extra dinosaurs were added the following year.

The circuit starts on a flat path along the shore of the Olivier lake, where amphibious dinosaurs, pictured, salute you.

It then loops up into a hilly wooded area to introduce you to friendly "monsters", including a T-Rex, a Diplodocus and a family of Triceratops.

dinosaur istres lakeA special section is devoted to 11 species which lived in this very area some 70 million years ago. The dinosaurs are designed to be friendly rather than scary: you can touch them, take a selfie with them (but not climb on them).

Dinosaur'Istres) is a nicely presented and researched show. You meet the species in the chronological order in which they originally lived. And they are all accompanied by explanatory panels written by the leading palaeontologist Stéphane Jouve, which give quite a lot of background on each one – alas, in French only.

You can also pick up a free little book of kids' games at the Istres Tourist Office (also in French) and in summer there is a programme of guided tours, conferences and children's workshop. But you can equally well go around Dinosaur'Istres on your own.

The complete circuit is around three km / two miles long, takes between an hour and 90 minutes and is open all year round, though it's not recommended on days of rain or high wind and you should bring hats and sunblock on hot summer's days.

Parts of the path are quite steep and you’re advised to wear comfortable shoes. The steps here and there mean it's not suitable for pushchairs either, and small toddlers could find it difficult.

There are no toilets on the path itself but you will find some down by the lake, as well as a play area, water fountains and an "Art Zoo", again free, of 12 modern resin animals from all over the world decorated by artists .

dinosaur istres woodThe other main drawback of Dinosaur'Istres is the lack of anywhere to buy snacks or ice creams (though in summer you may find a food truck or pop-up bar on the lakeside).

So bring water and a picnic: one or two shady areas are set up with tables on the route. Or wander into the main centre of Istres, just a couple of minutes away, where there are plenty of good cafes.

Fun fact about dinosaurs in ProvenceProvence is one of the regions of Europe which had the highest concentration of dinosaurs in prehistoric times. New specimens and eggs are being constantly discovered.

In 2013 a brand-new species was unearthed in Pourrières in the Var during works on a motorway. This very large carnivorous dinosaur was named Arcovenator escotae (Arco for short) after the motorway contractors, which financed the excavations.

In 2018 palaeontologists found the largest deposit of dinosaur eggs in the world around Mont Sainte Victoire, near Aix en Provence, which seems to have been a favourite breeding ground. Aix is now always known as Eggs en Provence to prehistorians.

Where: Dinosaur'Istres, Oppidum du Castellan, 13800 Istres.

How to get there:

By car: Istres is an easy 50 minute drive from Marseille along the A55 and D5. There are several municipal car-parks near the lake.

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By rail: Istres is an 80 minute ride from Marseille along the beautiful Blue Coast train line, an enjoyable excursion in its own right. Dinosaur'Istres is a 15 minute walk down the hill from the station.

Photo credits: all images © SJ for Marvellous Provence.

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