The Best of the Camargue from Towns to Wildlife For Visitors
The Camargue region is one of the most unique areas in France, a vast salt delta of marshland and sand dunes encompassing more than 247,000 acres, nestled between the two branches of the Rhône River, the Grand and Petit, both originating in the Swiss Alps. The word Camargue derives from a Celto-Ligurian (Provençal) Ca-mar dialect meaning “field covered with water.” Known primarily for its white horses, black bulls, pink flamingos, rice fields, gardians (cowboys) and Romas, the Camargue can be a tranquil alternative to the more crowded areas of the region, particularly if you visit out of season.
The capital of the Camargue, Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, is a small fishing village dating from the 4th century, set among mistral-whipped landscapes and sandy beaches that rim the Mediterranean. It is here that the Pèlerinage des gitans, a pilgrimage of the Romas, has been formally taking place every year from May 24-25 since 1448 to honor Sarah, the patron saint of the Romas. A small black woman, she rests in the crypt of Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Mer, the ancient church in the village. According to one of the many legends, Sarah was already in the Camargue region as early as the first century when a boat full of Marys arrived: Mary Jacobe, Mary Salome and Mary Magdalene. Sarah waded into the Mediterranean to help them to the shore.
In the mid-13th century, the Camargue was the only Mediterranean coastline belonging to France. To secure this strategic position, a port was constructed by King Louis IX (1226-1270), who wanted direct sea access. It is from the walled village of Aigues-Mortes that King Louis IX left twice for the Crusades: the Seventh Crusade in 1248 to Egypt and the Eighth Crusade in 1270 to Tunis, where he died of dysentery, typhus and scurvy. The name Aigues-Mortes refers to the many stagnant marshes and ponds extending around the village (Aquae Mortuae in Latin, Aigas Mòrtas in Occitaine, meaning “dead water.” King Louis IX built the Constance Tower and a castle that no longer exists. The one mile of ramparts enclosing the town were built in two successive stages: the first by his son and successor, Philippe III, the Bold, and the second during the reign of Philippe IV, the Fair.
More than half of the salt in France is collected from the 24,000 acres of the Salins-du-Midi salt pans. The Salin pans extend 11 miles from north to south and 8 miles from east to west. More than 211 miles of roads and pathways crisscross this area, equivalent in size to the city of Paris. The saltworks are part of Parc Naturel Régional de Camargue, which was founded in 1970 and covers an area of more than 247,000 acres. Except for fenced-off sections, access is unrestricted over an area of 210,000 acres.
Birds, Bulls and Horses
Camargue is France’s most remarkable site for bird diversity. Over 365 species of birds inhabit this area, including flamingos, ducks, terns, gulls, herons, egrets, avocets, bitterns, and warblers.
The white horses of the Camargue are considered among the oldest breeds in the world. The iconic image of these horses galloping through shallow waters surely attracts visitors to the region year after year. Interestingly, foals are born with normal dark coats, which turn white at around four or five years of age.
A black bull is bred exclusively for the Course Camarguaise in the Camargue. From birth to the age of one year, the young bulls loll quietly in 99,000 acres of pastures. Their only contact with humans comes during the branding session when they are given a number on their backs and marks on their buttocks, the symbol of the manade, herd. They are then taken to a bullring to be judged on their ability to become good bulls for the Course Camarguaise. The Course Camarguaise is a contest in the bullring between the bull, with its horns pointing to the sky, and the raseteur, a man dressed in white. The challenge for the raseteurs is to recover the cockade, a piece of red cloth placed in the centre of the bull’s forehead, two tassels attached to the base of each horn, and finally, two strings placed near the tassels. All of this must be removed with a raset, metal hook. There is no killing or injury to the animal during the Course Carmaguaise. At the end of their careers, the bulls live quietly in the meadows. Statues honoring the most outstanding bulls of the year are crowned with the title of Bióu d’Or.
Best of the Camargue
The best way to discover the Camargue is to travel through it. All you have to do is slow down and watch a flock of flamingos with sunlight glittering across pink-hued water or listen to the sound of the wind whispering through the tall sea grasses to succumb to this unique habitat’s alluring and elusive spirit.
Image credits: All the photos in this article were taken by Sue Aran of French Country Adventures.