Trip to the Camargue 1

Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer

Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer

It’s flat. Very flat. And most of it is barely a metre above sea level. The Camargue is a precious wetland area, the delta of the River Rhône, and a national park. I stayed there for a few days in late May with a friend, leaving the SF to hold the fort here. If global warming comes to pass as predicted and the ice caps continue to melt, this area of France has only a few decades at most. Like Venice.

After our stop at the Viaduc de Millau, we headed on southwards. Skirting Montpellier was a nightmare but once we had got past it, it was plain sailing. We stopped first at Aigues-Mortes (lit. dead waters), a fortified town that is one of the gateways to the Camargue. It’s a picturesque and well-preserved place. But even in late May it was a tourist trap. We stopped to look around and drink a seriously overpriced cup of tea and a Perrier at a café in the main square. I snapped the statue of Saint Louis (Louis IX, who sailed from there for a couple of crusades in the Holy Land and was married to Eleanor of Aquitaine). Then we moved on to our destination.

Saint Louis at Aigues-Mortes

Saint Louis at Aigues-Mortes

Domaine de Cacharel is a former stud farm at the base of the Camargue, near the town of Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.

Domaine de Cacharel

Domaine de Cacharel

The Camargue breed of horses is evident everywhere – herds of them graze on the wetlands. Bulls do, too, but we saw them only in the distance. My friend is a great fan of horses. I regard them as dangerous at both ends and uncomfortable in the middle. So I was quite happy for her to go off for a morning’s ride while I explored the area around our hotel. Domaine de Cacharel is surrounded by dykes and a measuring post shows how high the water has risen on occasions.

Camargue horses

Camargue horses

Domaine de Cacharel surrounded by a dyke

Domaine de Cacharel surrounded by a dyke

While we were there it was sunny but extremely windy and not very warm. This was a boon in some regards, since it kept off the mosquitoes. Nonetheless, my friend was seriously bitten while out riding. A conning tower at our hotel afforded a 360° perspective of the Camargue. And, with binoculars, you really can see a long way. This is a wildlife aficionado’s paradise.

Only a few kilometres from the hotel is Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, situated right on the Med. This is the destination, two weekends per year, for gipsies from Italy and Spain, who, for some reason, make a pilgrimage there. Late May is one of their festivals. Our hotelier advised us not to go into town in the evening. We did, however, drive through on our final morning. At the risk of offending someone, I have to say that it is a town almost completely without redeeming features. It does appear to have an interesting church but there was no way we could have found a parking place. We moved on.

Flamingo

Flamingo

One of the highlights of our visit was a trip to the Parc Ornithologique at Pont de Gau, a couple of km from our hotel as the crow (or flamingo) flies but rather more by road because of the lakes and ditches. The park is very well laid out with various circuits around the lakes and information boards with explanations of the bird life and other wildlife. They have also constructed hides from which you can view the birds and animals.

Young heron contemplating take-off

Young heron contemplating take-off

Of course, pink flamingos are de rigueur, since this is the only place in France where they nest and breed; as are other bird species that you find only here. We also saw ragondins (coypu), beavers and plenty of other fauna and flora.

Swan and cygnets

Swan and cygnets

Coypu enjoying some water weed

Coypu enjoying some water weed

From our hotel we could see in the distance the outlines of Mont Ventoux and Les Alpilles in Provence. After only a couple of days, I found myself craving rolling countryside. So I don’t think I will ever return to the Camargue. But I’m glad to have visited.

Traditional Camargais cottage, thatched with reeds from the wetlands

Copyright © 2013 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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12 Responses to Trip to the Camargue 1

  1. Sue Whatmough says:

    I have never had a particular desire to go to the Camargue. The only reason would be the wildlife. Flatness, the wind and mossies don’t attract me one bit. Sadly but inevitably, hunting is still a favourite pastime there, although the numbers are declining. The most beleaguered are the mallard. I cannot understand how anybody can get a kick out of shooting a living creature out of the sky (or on the ground for that matter) simply for the fun of it. I think they’re very sick. The SF might find this (slightly out of date) document http://www.wwt.org.uk/userfiles/files/18_Mondain_Monval.pdf
    interesting, though he’ll need to scroll down a bit to get to the stats. Yippee, the sun’s out!

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    • nessafrance says:

      It’s certainly worth the trip if you are interested in wildlife. But the terrain is a bit different from where you live!

      Thanks for the link; I was just about to pass it on to the SF when he told me he’d already looked at it, having seen your comment. He found it very interesting – it fed his appetite for statistics!

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  2. I once sailed the Etang de Thau and visited Aigues Mortes. The name made a big impression on us as teenagers, but somehow the Camargue didn’t register.
    Eleanor didn’t stay long with Louis, ditching her girls (reputed never to have seen them again) and headed off to marry the duke Henry of Normandy, thereafter to cause havoc in France and England. I quite admire her spirit though though I imagine the Normandy and English climate must have got her down after the sunny climes of the south. Perhaps she was glad of a respite from the mosquitoes, and that’s what made her “jump ship”

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    • nessafrance says:

      Eleanor and some of her ladies in waiting went with Louis on one of the crusades, which was a disaster. I don’t think it was uncommon at the time that royal princesses were betrothed at a very young age and were then effectively brought up at the court of their intended – which is what happened to Eleanor’s girls. If you have the chance, do read Douglas Boyd’s ‘April Queen’, which is a biography of Eleanor. She remains a rather shadowy figure, not least because she left no writings extant and because Henry II locked her up for 15 years in England after she conspired against him. Nonetheless, she lived to a ripe old age, outlived Henry II (she was older than him) and made her mark on European history for centuries afterwards. She must have been a spirited woman and was reputed to be very beautiful. At this distance, who knows? It makes a good story, though.

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      • I’m reading Alison Weir’s biography. She has a great influence on Normandy, (or rather on the behaviour of her sons who ended up its dukes) Yes, imagine being prisoner for that long thanks to your husband. Her family have to be one of the most disfonctional in history, especially when Richard, Henry and Geofrey aligned themselves with Eleanor’s ex against their own father. All quite juicy really!

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      • nessafrance says:

        Not a lot of familial love lost there. A fascinating character. It’s a pity we don’t know more about Eleanor directly. She’s always seen through the prism of her sons and husbands. I’ll have to read Alison Weir’s biography. The film A Lion in Winter with Katherine Hepburn portrayed this all rather well.

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  3. My OH went apple picking near Les Stes Maries as a teenager and when we stayed in Provence shortly after we got married he said he knew of a really nice beach. In the ten years since he’d been there it had turned into a nearly completely nudist beach… Too nudist. Well, would you buy a cornet off a naked ice cream seller?

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    • nessafrance says:

      I found Les Saintes Maries a pretty dismal place, not assisted by the fact that it was full of tawdry funfairs etc because of the weekend influx. As to your question, it rather depends on the ice cream seller. Brad Pitt, for example, I would be quite happy with. Unlikely, though, that he would feel the need to supplement his income like that.

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  4. susancarey says:

    I’ve always had a very romantic notion of La Camargue, with its galloping white horses. Your blog post has changed my notion of it somewhat… I used to love the TV series, The White Horses, shown in the 60s on BBC. I always thought it was about Camargue horses but Wikipedia informs me the horses were Lippizzaners. It was foreign and exotic anyhow so that dream remains intact!

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    • nessafrance says:

      Oh dear, sorry to have caused you to revise your ideas about it. There is something very haunting about the place and, of course, it is crammed with wildlife. But you have to like flat land – which I don’t – and be prepared to put up with some vicious mosquitoes.

      I remember that BBC series – I even remember the theme song! The Camargue horses are a specific breed and each stud has its own branding mark.

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  5. amelie88 says:

    La Camargue was not far from where we were staying in Provence last summer. We visited the Domaine de Paul Ricard and learned about the courses camarguaises, bullfights in which the bull does not die (like in Spain). The very famous old French movie Crin Blanc was shot at La Camargue and the horses in that movie are Camargue horses. It was all very interesting since I had not heard of this part of France before. We also the flamingos but from far away–I don’t think they live there year round but it’s a stopping point along their migration route.

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    • nessafrance says:

      In parts of southern France they still do the corrida (traditional bullfighting) so I’m rather glad the Camargais version is different. The flamingos were everywhere when we went and like to congregate in large flocks. They honk rather like geese. According to what I have read, some are sedentary while others are migratory but the Camargue is the only place in France where they breed. I haven’t seen Crin Blanc – thanks for mentioning it.

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