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
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
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.
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.