France’s Camargue – the land of true diversity
Imagine travelling through the heart-land of a delta region – what jumps out at you? Is it the flatness of the region or the endless acres of salt flats divided by borders of gravel banks leading to who knows where – perhaps just the horizon or some other equally distant destination that is unattainable. May be your mind leaps to a haven of wildlife and even flamingoes, hidden by seven foot reed-beds defying your camera lens access to the private ornithological playground.
Whatever your impressions or images are of delta regions, I would love to set you a challenge of falling in love with France’s Camargue. We’ve been to four deltas during our 20 months on the road; two in Spain, one in Romania and one in Italy. They are all very different – and in their individuality you can look deep within their characters to experience the true battle between land, river and sea and watch unfold an incredible evolution that serves both the human race and the natural world in an incredible dance of harmony.
Yet the Camargue, the largest delta in western Europe is one of the stand-out areas for me such is its diversity, expanse and intrigue. Nestled in the arms of the Rhône that splits out into two; the Petit Rhône to the west and the Grand Rhône to the east, the south of France claims protection over this incredibly fertile and rich plain. With a blend of Mediterranean Coast, a Spanish cultural influence and a highly balanced ecosystem of salt lagoons cut off from the sea’s reign by sand dunes and reed beds, the Camargue has supremacy in Europe for tradition, cultivation and ornithology. It is so much more than a land of flat nothingness.
Let me see if I can inspire a visit with these seven reasons to put the Camargue on your list:
1. Sexy Salt-flats?
So let’s talk salt-flats and deal with the iconic delta landscape before we delve into cultural intrigue. Now these are no ordinary salt beds; the Camargue has coloured salt-flats that just cry out for a few ‘Ooohs and ahhhs’ from passers by. Thanks to the algae in the region, the landscape is quite breathtaking and in the mid-day sun the hue sparkles pink and purple.
There’s also something quite earthy about the salt industry here, because although there’s a slight hint of exploitation of the earth’s resources, somehow there feels like a grace in which this process is undertaken, almost as if, with gratitude the salt is lifted and manufactured. A mixture of salt we use for cooking and also road salt – this production line has huge benefits to the local community and beyond. Fringed with coarse plants and crystal rocks, this area defies you to not be impressed. Go to the Visitors’ Viewing point about 2km from Salin-de-Giraud and you will be treated to a magnificent sight.
Arles is Camargue’s capital and a thriving city that boasts the splitting of the Rhône in two. Although we didn’t spend any time here other than passing through looking for petrol, it certainly looks like a place to stop. It has one of the region’s longest and most major markets around its city walls, every Wednesday and Saturday morning and if you love markets, then get your walking shoes on and go explore. On top of that you have a UNESCO site in the Roman monuments, theatre and amphitheatre and its main claim to fame is that it was host to Vincent Van Gogh who called this home for a year, creating over 300 hundred paintings. So Arles is definitely worth exploring and we will do it justice next time we’re in the region for sure.
3. Sainte Marie de la Mare
Black Madonna – Sarah
This small, Spanish influenced, whitewashed town on the Camargue’s coast has strong links with the Romany people, for whom Sarah or ‘Sara the Black’ is their patron saint. The Black Madonna, as she is also known is honoured at Sainte Marie each May, when there is an annual pilgrimage of Romanies to the town. The drive there transports you to a land that time forgot, with Ranches spring out of nowhere, where the famous Camargue horses form the heart of local’s passion and their livelihood.
It is here that you start to feel the culture behind the Camargue, where Gardians or cowboys hold their centuries old tradition of raising black bulls for the Spanish Bullfighting industry and using the wild horses to round up their herds. Today there is more of a tourist feel to this town as many of the Ranches offer horse-ridding excursions around the Delta, although it is quaint enough and definitely worth hanging around to pick up an evening vibe.
4. Aigues Mortes
Aigues’ Castle Walls
Of all the Camargue towns, Aigues Mortes (name source; stagnant water) was our favourite. As we cycled along the main road from Montcalm where we were camping at their vineyard, we crossed a river, which at its end has an imposing tower that entices you towards it. With increased pedal power you find yourself intrigued and soon enough you enter the almost Disney-like scene in front of you. Impenetrable walls that for centuries have protected its farmers and salt-miners, standing up against those who wish to claim the land for its own. Back in the day, Aigues had direct access to the sea, so protection from the Crusaders was absolutely necessary. Today bridges over the canal, a silted moat and a great road network has you within the bosom of Aigues within no time, although you certainly feel its protective prowess as you approach.
This ancient city is beautifully intact and as you walk around the walls you get a real sense of the stories that were created here and how today’s town has claimed its identity.
Inside the walls, it’s like another world. A place where you can feel the security and as you wander through the grid-like alleyways, you seriously feel like you have teleported into a Dickensian era. If like me, you take your camera with you everywhere, then Aigues is the place you will click the most. Outside of the walls you have a masterful spectacle; waterways that now provide tours for eagerly awaiting landlubbers with a chance to see the Delta up-close-and-personal; and then there’s the romantic, encased town claiming its own unique personality with sandstone walls that tell tales of battles fought, won and lost in bygone eras. In fact the town saw the largest massacre of immigrants in modern France, when in 1893, Italian workers who were brought in to work on the salt flats began fighting with the French contingent leading to riots and a massacre of Italian workers. It caused a huge diplomatic incident between France and Italy leading finally to compensation and justice.
We were lucky (or unlucky as the case may be) to have visited early October, where they have a week-long festival of Bull and Horse Running through the town. Local Gardians and Romanies gather to celebrate their Bull raising traditions and although I hate the idea of bullfighting in any manner, this bull running through the town’s streets is not something that results in death, thankfully. Whilst I love to experience another country’s traditions, the crowds that these festivals attract don’t make for an authentic visit. So whilst I appreciated seeing something completely new and I must admit to being intrigued, I would love to return so we can wander through the streets without the throng of the crowds.
5. Le Grau du Roi
I think when you come to a new place, visiting as much as you have the time and energy for seems appropriate. It’ll certainly help you form an overall impression of a place and help you decide whether a second visit or a recommendation to others is worthy. So on our last day in the Camargue, we decided to check out Le Grau du Roi and sadly it was our least favourite of all the places we visited. Whilst the canal leading to the sea and the old town to the west is full of character and we just love marinas and boat-life, which this has aplenty, the rest of the streets and harbour-front were just full with wall-to-wall tourists shops and restaurants. It left us cold and the beachfront with its high-rise hotels and marinas simply didn’t do it for us. It’s almost as if this section of the Camargue has lost its soul to the devil and really doesn’t have the same spirit as in the heart of the National Park. Whilst Le Grau du Roi is to the west of the Camargue, this town marks a significant change in both the landscape and the authenticity that the Delta offers.
Le Grau du Roi coastline
From this point as you head west, small fishing villages have been swollen up by consumerism and commerciality, with hotels rising above the trees in some sort of fight for supremacy and the authentic nature of the coastline lost to holiday-makers. Montpellier sets its southern coast marker where crowds flock rather than birds – and for us, it just wasn’t our cup of tea. We were glad to visit to see the other side, although it was a face of the Camargue that was less appealing for us and we were glad to have moved inland to find a bit more French authenticity.
If like me, you love nature and the wonders of the world, then the Camargue will not disappoint. Away from the towns and their tourist trade, you enter a magical world where nature seems unperturbed by the frenetic human activity around it. As if in some grand snobbery, flamingoes defy the photographers’ lens and coach loads of adoring ornithologists. This is a sanctuary to them, a haven of food and relative safety from the elements where they can raise their young and live their simple lives amidst the lagoons, teaming with their favourite dish of the day. Dragonflies dart amongst the reed beds, birds wade, horses roam and buzzards soar all to the delight of the onlookers.
You can visit the Parc Ornithologique at Pont de Gau close to Sainte Marie de la Mare which is open all year – here you get 2.5km of intimate sanctuary that allows you to see seasonal wildlife in a protected area. Alternatively, just spend time, like we did, cycling or driving around the region and see the area teeming with wildlife everywhere. Autumn and spring are great seasons to visit as migratory birds will be more evident here, although whatever time of year you go, there is always something on the horizon.
7. Carmargue beaches, sunrises and sunsets
Perhaps beaches are not the first thing you think of when you picture a Delta, although the Camargue has them in bucketloads. Perfect golden sands that stretch for miles offering a barrier to the lagoons from the sometimes harsh energy of the sea. As a south facing landscape, of course the added benefit of the coast is its unmistakably beautiful sunrises and sunsets. With just a little patience and commitment to perhaps an early morning or two, then you will be rewarded by the most incredible colours that turn the sky and the land into an artist’s canvas. Whether you love kitesurfing, horse ridding or simply walking with your bare feet on the the golden grains, the Camargue’s endless beaches are magnificent and just so the diversity of this treasured land.
I hope that these seven reasons for visiting the Camargue have inspired to add this French beauty to your ‘must visit’ list. Easily accessible by plane with flights into either Montpellier or Marseille and a road network of motorways from Spain and Italy, there is no excuse not to visit.
If you decide to come by car or camper, there are plenty of places to camp out which enhanced our Camargue experience although one piece of advice before I leave you – if you are driving from Martigues in the east towards Sainte Marie de la Mare, you will find a ferry that takes you across the Rhône. Take it! For no more than €10 you can cross this channel and get direct access to the Camargue, otherwise you will have a 80km detour to Arles which is the only other crossing point from east to west. Learn from our mistake and just pay the Ferryman!
Here are our camping spots should you go with your own vehicle:
- Sausset Les Pins – Free Aire (43.3318816 005.109914)
- Arles Plage de Piémenson – Wild camping on the beach between the lagoon and the Med. Windy, although stunning location in good weather. (43.348050 004.784010). Services available in Salin le Giraud.
- Domaine Montcalm – France Passion Vineyard – camping for free. Free wine tasting although no obligation to buy.
There are plenty of other camping options in the area, including official ACSI sites. However you come – just come and discover the treasures of the land that is the Camargue.
As I sit here watching the sun go down over the Ebro Delta on Spain’s north-eastern coast, I can hear the gentle cries of the flamingoes in the background and the plentiful birdlife playing in the twilight sky.
We stumbled upon this little haven after moving on from Peniscola where the campsite there was door to door vans, with no room to breathe. I felt completely hemmed in and claustrophobic so we hopped, skipped and jumped out of there and up the autovista to somewhere more wild, open and beautiful. And we found it. The Ebro Delta.
It does seem odd to put the next two words in the same sentence; car park and stunning, although this is the truth of Casa de Fusta (co-ordinates N40° 39.505′ E0° 40.523). As a centre for tourist activities, cycling, bird watching and walking, offering a restaurant and toilets, this large parking area accommodates at least fifty motorhomes, for free. There are services although you pay €3 for grey waste and water and €3 for black waste.
Casa de Fusta camping
One of the things we have come to appreciate in our year on the road is how wonderful car parking spots can be for camping overnight. We’ve called a few of them ‘home’ in the last twelve months and our experiences have changed our perspective of car-park style Aires. And this one serves to be a positive reminder of that opinion.
This region is really a slice of heaven. A good five miles from the motorway, you weave your way through some pretty narrow roads to find yourself in the Ebro Delta – a Natural Park and conservation area, which is changing by the year as the sea reclaims the land. Although for now, the natural beds of salt pans, natural lagoons and reed beds hide a multitude of birds, some rare species claiming this as their territory.
And then you catch a glimpse of brilliant salmon-pink wings as the flamingoes land with surprising grace, right in front of you. What a privilege that is. These creatures that simply don’t look like they’ve been designed to fly and have jumped right out of the pages of a comic strip.
We saw flamingoes at El Rocio in western Spain last year and again in the Po Delta in Italy, although neither place offered such an easy-to-access view of these stunning birds. In fact Italy had turned it into a fee-paying tourism activity, fencing the birds off so that only the largest telephoto lens would pick them up.
So for me as a bird-lover to get so close to these magnificent creatures and hear their cries as my morning alarm has been a rare treat. Miles of cycling along flat roads that run alongside the irrigation channels, where birds take flight as they hear you approach, just adds to the magic. Only five miles away you have El Trabucador – a causeway of sand that shelters the lagoons from the often ferocious Mediterranean sea determined to win the battle over the protected waters. You can park here during the day ( N40° 36.565′ E0° 43.522’ ) and watch the kite surfers skim the lagoon surface, dancing with the on-shore winds. No camping is allowed here over night, although the for the day, it is a great spot to watch the mountains whilst listening to the roar of the ocean. The peace and tranquility are palpable – minus the exception of the odd arctic lorry that gingerly passes on the compacted sand towards the salt factory at the end of the spit.
Deltebre wild camp spot
Our final night in the region was sadly awash with heavy rain, so we were pretty relieved that we didn’t stay any longer on the beach as we’d have made a nice based for a sandcastle. Although we still found a lovely little wild camping spot right on the River Ebro. ( Co-ordinates N40° 42.851′ E0° 42.932′ ) On a good day, the river walk looks lovely, although in this weather, we gave it a miss. Deltebre is a functional town rather than anything pretty, although I do accept that the rain and the need to shop could easily have affected my view. Still there all the supermarkets are here, together with really cheap petrol – the first we’ve seen this year at .99c.
So if you haven’t gathered by my vociferous bigging up of this area – we like it here and really feel that it deserves your time and adoration as it offers so much to the active, bird-loving, nature adoring camper. If you love having a town’s vibe, nightlife, shops and restaurants, right on your doorstep, then this probably isn’t for you. If instead you love nature’s orchestra, then this is definitely worth putting on your To-Do list when travelling up or down this eastern coast of Spain. We hope you like it as much as we did. Kx
Here’s our Gallery of Ebro Delta pictures;
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As we sit just across the French/Spain border, it seems appropriate to reflect on our Spanish odyssey over the last seven weeks and compile our favourite Top 10 Spanish Delights. It has been a real immersion into the soul of another country and we have come out the other side with a greater understanding and love for this Iberian land and its hidden treasure. Whilst there is so much more to explore, these were our highlights.
Stunning Segovia – Castilla y León
We were often overwhelmed by Spain’s irrefutable religious devotion, evidenced by the passion that went into the construction of their religious monuments. The most memorable collection for us is Segovia accompanied by its charming old town, which requires a whole new vocabulary of colourful adjectives. From the Roman aqueduct which powerfully imprints its historical legacy, to the market of the Plaza Mayór overseen by the shadow of its magnificent Cathedral and of course the Castle, which looks like it’s jumped straight out of a Disney film. Perched high, Segovia commands your admiration as you wonder through its characterful alleyways, its network of cobbled streets and plethora of religious masterpieces that caste a magical spell over you forever.
Seductive Seville – Andalucía
Seville was an attack on our senses, and powerless to her charm, we surrendered with every fibre of our body. Aside of the tourist haunts that seem an inevitable drawn, Seville has so much more that the hop-on, hop-off buses and over-priced horse-drawn carriages. When you look deep into Seville’s soul, it tells a story that engages you with each turning page. It’s a real sensory explosion that left me feeling touched by something far more than bricks and mortar. The Orange Blossom trees that line the avenues, the magnetising allure of Alcazar’s Palace, the doves that don the silver birch trees in Plaza España, the ornate historical and modern buildings and the elegant feel of each city corner that held its own secret. Seville is a stunning place to let yourself go and experience something so much more than a touristic excursion.
Delightful Doñana and El Rocío – Andalucía
After the buzz of Seville what better place to soothe our racing heart than Mother Nature’s rhythm. Doñana National Park is one of Europe’s most important and diverse parks, offering three unique ecosystems; forest, wetlands and sand dunes. This wild south-western corner of Spain is, we suspect, much missed out by many visitors, unless you are going in or out of Portugal. If bird-life is your thing, then Doñana is a must on your Spanish odyssey. Add to this, the intriguing El Rocío that with its eclectic, non-conformist community, leaves you treading through its sandy, unsealed roads, feeling like its been a Holywood movie set. El Rocío is just one of those places that has to be seen to be appreciated. Words and pictures just don’t do it justice.
Gorgeous Grazalema – Andalucía
The mountains in Spain hold so many treasures that when you can tear yourself away from the motorway south or the beach lounger along the Costas, they will simply make your heart skip a beat. We loved the mountains and we danced amongst them as often as we could, as this is where we felt most at home. Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park, east of Jerez is just a joy. After the buzz of towns like Cadiz and Seville, this haven of majestic giants is like the soothing feel of a velvet blanket around your shoulders on a cold night. This region is home to the famous ring of Pueblo Blancos – White towns, which as the name suggests are full of white-washed houses that each have their own character and history. As you climb the mountains exhausted by the hair-pin bends, you gently sink into Grazalema’s welcome. This spectacular village clings purposefully to the side of the mountain claiming its right to perch there for all eternity. I was moved to tears when driving into this village, as around every bend more of its beauty is revealed and you get drawn into its cobbled streets, España Plaza and its dazzling whiteness. I defy you not to fall in love with this hidden treasure chest of loveliness.
Magnificent Monfragüe – Extremadura
Purely by chance, we were looking for a change from the religious cultural explosion that we had experienced in Burgos, Segovia and Salamanca – and Monfragüe popped up offering us sanctuary. With Red Kites, Storks and Vultures flying overhead, we soon began to appreciate the preciousness of this natural park. It is home to a number of rare breeds, namely the Black Vulture and Black Stork, which are, worldwide, endangered species. Amongst it voluptuous mountains and deep river valleys, you are entertained by clouds of these amazing raptors, as they sedately catch a thermal or two. The walks through the area are just stunning and you can easily while away a week here, if you’re a nature lover. Peace, tranquility and raw nature welcome you in this Spanish heart-land.
Resplendent Ronda – Andalucía
Ronda’s iconic bridge over the plunging gorge features heavily in Spanish holiday marketing – and it is not be to be missed. Its stunning city walls, old town offerings and of course the gorge, will treat you to a veritable feast of photo opportunities, walking or simply coffee drinking and people watching to the echoes of the church bells. We watched a Flamenco dance here too, which was mesmerising and so emotional that you will leave feeling blessed to have witnessed something so heart-driven and passionate.
Glorious Güejar Sierra – Andalucía
Deep in the Sierra Nevada mountains, north of Malaga and away from the Costa crowds you stumble upon Granada. Now whilst this is indeed a beautiful place to visit and the Alhambra Palace the major draw for most people, what was more memorable for us was the spot about 8km outside of the city, up in the mountains. Güejar Sierra is a small and charming village that has adjusted to mountain life admirably and with a bus that takes the Snakes and Ladders route to the city twice an hour, civilisation really isn’t far. There are plentiful walks, and the ice-blue Embalse de Canales to feast your eyes on too. If you are lucky as we were, to have a spring storm, then you will be rewarded with snow-capped mountain peaks making for a picture-postcard album of photographs. The peace we found here was soul-soothing and yet another one of those places that you just could have stayed at forever.
Dazzling Denia – Valencian Community
East from Granada on the coast you have another Costa that lures in the English tourist. Yet beyond the traditional Costa Blanca holiday destination is the more tranquil host of towns that includes Jávea, Denia and Olva. We didn’t quite make it to Javea as the pine-clad campsite of Los Pinos in Denia seduced us into enjoy its delights; its elegant promenade, cliff and mountain walking, its classy marina all entice you to simply hang out. We loved our goat impersonations as we hiked along precarious cliff edges and our training for the Tour De France took shape, as we cycled along the towns many dedicated cycle routes, often distracted by the stunning scenery passing by our eyes. Whilst not the nightlife you might expect from further down the coast, this was a super place to park up for three or four days and just be.
Visionary Valencia – Valencian Community
One thing you can’t do in Valencia is be. Valencia invites to you walk amongst its city streets and marvel at its understated pleasures. After the historical dunking from our previous cities, Valencia offered us
a refreshing modern twist on architecture. The parks running around the outside of the city are a haven for fitness enthusiasts and the Catalonian culture speaks volumes here, as ladies in their La Falla customs glide through the streets after church and the local flag proudly flutters from windows stating their allegiance. Valencia needs to be savoured and our one day trip was simply not enough. It needs – no, it deserves more time to wander.
Colourful Costa Brava coast – Catalonia
Our final highlight is the Costa Brava. Its fusion of rugged coastline with bays, coves, mountains, peninsulars and beautiful beaches show little evidence of flocking Costa tourists. This is the quiet, more elegant Costa, just east of Girona and only a handful of kilometres from the French border and the Pyrenees. We called home, a place just east of L’Escala on the Montgó peninsular with a sandy beach one side and a craggy cove the other. Its mountain backdrop frames the bay and its coves beautifully, as they try to shelter from the tempestuous Tramontane wind.
The highlight of this part of our trip was heading over the mountain to Salvador Dali’s territory, Cadaqués, which had a very special, creative energy about it. Built into the rocks, this town sparkles with artistic talent from its painted electricity cupboards to its artisan shops selling their wares and the iconic bay upon which the town gazes for its inspiration.
With a very contented sigh, I reflect back upon the journey we’ve taken, that not only was virginal for us in Spain, it was also our first experience of living in a motorhome full time, with no house to speak of and no jobs. Just us, the road, our chariot and the Spanish countryside waiting to inspire and teach us and what a classroom it’s been. With gratitude we appreciate all that we’ve experienced and look ahead to our French adventure with eager anticipation. It calls us to return and savour its delights some more. And in the words of Arnold Schwarzenegger, ‘We’ll be back!’