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Why Visit Aigues-Mortes the Old Mediterranean Port

It had been quite a few years since we visited Aigues-Mortes, so when cousin Jean-Marc suggested we go somewhere on the sea, I suggested we go there. I still recall the first time we went to Aigues-Mortes, years before buying our house in Sablet, with Tante Edith, Jean-Marc’s mother.
Aigues-Mortes was founded in 1240 by Louis IX, who was to become Saint Louis on a swampy strip of land along the Mediterranean Sea. The 1st King of France to have a Mediterranean port, he built the future Tower of Constance and a castle that no longer exists and developed canals towards the sea, Arles and Montpellier. He left from the port of Aigues-Mortes on his crusades in 1248 and 1270. Continue reading here for Michel’s photos of their visit to this town surrounded by old ramparts and a family connection.

Historical Aigues-Mortes

Arriving in Aigues-Mortes today, you might think King Louis IX was crazy to consider creating a settlement where the Rhône River delta meets the Mediterranean. King Louis’ strategy was to establish a port with ready access to the Mediterranean from which he could launch his reclamation of the Holy Land. Sadly, not only were the seventh and eighth crusades unsuccessful, King Louis was captured and died in the process. Revered during his reign from 1226 to 1270, the popular king was canonized in 1297 (post-humously) by Pope Boniface VIII. Saint Louis was the only French king ever to receive that honour.
Aigues-Mortes (eaux mortes, aquae mortuae or Dead Waters) is where King Louis IX chose to establish a fortified presence in 1240. However, King Louis IX was not the first to construct near this marshland. Charlemagne beat him to it many years before when he had the Matafère Tower built, in 791, to protect local fishers and workers. Intended for communication signalling, the Matafère Tower functioned like the hilltop towers in the Alpilles.
In the 13th century, the Kingdom of France suffered from geographical constraints. The feisty Kings of Aragon ruled the southwest in Languedoc-Roussillon (now Occitanie), and to the east, the Germanic Empire maintained a stronghold. Benedictine monks from the Abbey of Psalmody controlled the sparsely populated place chosen by the King. The few residents eked out rustic existences by fishing, hunting and small-scale salt production. During the construction time, the Mediterranean reached the edge of Aigues-Mortes, but eventually, the Rhône’s silt deposits blocked the sea access.

Surrounded by Stone

Towering stone ramparts surround Aigues-Mortes, stretching a full 1.6 kilometres (1 mile) in an odd-shaped quadrangle, punctuated by ten entry gates and six defensive towers. The fortified walls reaching 8-9 metres high protected the old village and the Gothic church (1183 AD).
The Constance Tower (built on the site of Charlemagne’s Matafère Tower) is an imposing circular structure with six-metre walls and is all that remains from the King Louis IX era. This tower was impregnable but not inescapable – 17 Huguenot prisoners escaped in 1703. It also served as a prison for women deemed sympathetic to the Protestant cause, starting in 1715. Take the elevator to the top level for a sweeping view of the Camargue salt flats.
Buy an entry ticket that allows access to the Constance Tower and the ramparts. The audio guide is well worth paying for, which provides an excellent historical overview and insight into the era when the lagoon reached the town’s walls. Before the existence of roads and railways, the Rhône provided transportation and trade. 

Visit Aigues-Mortes

Today without the fear of brutal enemy attacks, holiday residences, hotels, restaurants, boutiques, and galleries fill the interior of the ramparts. After walking the ramparts, visit Notre Dame des Sablons, a church of Gothic construction, although there have been several restorations in the ensuing years.
Aigues Mortes Notre-Dame des Sablons church
Nature lovers interested in seeing birds should head to la Réserve du Petit Rhône. Open annually from Easter to Halloween on Wednesdays and weekends. There are some 100 species of birds. Book guided tours in advance; the tours last 2-3 hours.
La Marette – Maison du Grand Site de France is an outdoor ecomuseum with a 1.6 km trail system. Although it is free to visit independently, guided tours are available for a modest fee.
Aigues Mortes View
Partially protected as a nature preserve since 1927, the Camargue wetland is 100,000 hectares and a UNESCO designated biosphere reserve. Managed by the Parc naturel régional de Camargue, you will see rice fields, grapevines, brackish lagoons and dunes punctuating the flat landscape. This region is impossibly breathtaking and completely untamed at the same moment. As the Rhône’s waters wash into the Mediterranean, the river dumps some 20 million cubic meters of silt a year in the area.
Aigues Mortes Camargue Visit

The salt flats or salins in the Camargue generate over two million tons of sea salt per year. From April until October, Mediterranean water runs into 60 km of channels and evaporation pans near Aigues-Mortes. During the summer months, the water’s salt content intensifies from 26g to over 260g, and the salt crystals begin forming. Fleur de sel refers to the “blooms or petals” of lacy flakes that float to the top of the salt pans. As the water evaporates, precious salt particles are raked and harvested before the crystals sink to the bottom of the holding area.

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Michel and Shirley

Michel and Shirley

Michel and Shirley, live in wine country, in Windsor, California. They have a full family with two beautiful daughters and five amazing grandchildren. Michel's day job is as CEO of Chancellor Health Care, a company which provides housing and services to older adults.

Previously a co-owner of a popular French bistro called Bistro des Copains located in Western Sonoma County California. The Bistro was closed in early 2015, after nine years!

In 2008, after searching for years and visiting many houses they bought a 17th century stone village house in the medieval village of Sablet which is in the Vaucluse region of Provence France.

Please read about the Sablet House (available for rent) and follow their blog Our House in Provence.

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